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Patriots Architect Ernie Adams Explains How They Beat Steelers In 2001 Title Game (And How Pittsburgh Could’ve Won)

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When the Pittsburgh Steelers played the New England Patriots in the playoffs (and in most regular-season instances), heartbreak followed. It was the “Evil Empire” of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rodney Harrison, and others consistently blocking the Steelers’ path to the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh only making a run when it could avoid the Patriots in postseason play.

But the forgotten man who helped shape and run the organization was Ernie Adams. Belichick’s right-hand man, Adams’ official title was Football Research. But he worked in tandem with Belichick to build the roster and the game plan. Appearing on Julian Edelman’s Games with Names podcast Tuesday, Adams remembered the team’s 2001 Super Bowl run, which included beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. 

Adams says the Patriots’ plan was to make QB Kordell Stewart win with his arm.

“We had gone in to play the Steelers. That was Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, a totally different game-planned team,” Adams said, juxtaposing it with plans against the pass-heavy Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams. “We go in and play the Steelers. It’s Cover 3, we’re going to bring the strong safety, we’re going to stop their running game. Make them beat us throwing.”

Pittsburgh finished the regular season with the NFL’s top rushing attack. Number one in carries, number one in yards, number one in touchdowns, and fifth in yards per carry. In their divisional win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers ran the ball 49 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns, dominating time of possession at over 40 minutes and grinding out a victory. The Patriots took that away. Pittsburgh rushed for only 58 yards and less than three yards per carry. Jerome Bettis finished with eight yards on nine carries while most of their rushing yards came from Stewart.

Despite becoming one-dimensional, Pittsburgh played New England tight. And all seemed lost for the Pats when starting QB Tom Brady was injured mid-game after a low hit from S Lee Flowers on a blitz, bending his leg backward and Brady hobbling off the field.

At the time, the Patriots only led 7-3 with two minutes left in the half. Drew Bledsoe was forced to finish the game, stepping in and stepping up. Later in the same drive Brady exited, Bledsoe hit WR David Patten for an 11-yard score, critical points before the break.

Adams understood if Bledsoe didn’t play big, the Steelers would’ve met the Rams in the Super Bowl instead.

“Tom got hurt and Drew, being a team guy, threw a big touchdown pass and we won the game,” he said. “If Drew doesn’t come in and play well against the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl.”

Bledsoe’s numbers weren’t great. But they were enough. He completed 10-of-21 passes for 102 yards, that touchdown to Patten, and no interceptions. The Patriots’ special teams became their offense with two touchdowns, a Troy Brown punt return score (aided by a Troy Edwards gaffe) and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. The Patriots won 24-17, and advanced to the Super Bowl. Brady returned healthy and was named MVP after beating the heavily favored Rams.

Though allegations over cheating are still discussed by fans and even ex-players like Bettis over the ’04 title game loss, Bledsoe’s contributions that day are forgotten. If it wasn’t for Bledsoe, Brady wouldn’t have had the chance to win his first ring and the Patriots’ dynasty could’ve looked far different just as the Steelers’ history could’ve significantly changed.

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