American Football: Bledsoe returns to derail Pittsburgh

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The St Louis Rams will be playing in next Sunday's Super Bowl, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed their irresistible progress throughout the course of the season. However their opponents, the New England Patriots, may be one of the most surprising Super Bowl teams ever. Few rated their chances of pulling off an upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday, but the Patriots held firm, their well-deserved 24-17 win booking their place in New Orleans.

By coincidence, New England have contested two previous championship games, both held in Louisiana. In Super Bowl XXI, they were crushed by the Chicago Bears 46-10, while a decade later Green Bay proved too strong. Once again, they will be underdogs, but the Patriots believe they are a team of destiny, and it is difficult to argue with them after the drama in Pittsburgh.

When the Patriots lost their quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, in the second week of the season, their prospects appeared bleak. Instead, rallying around the untested youngster Tom Brady, New England rallied strongly, winning nine of their last 11 games. Bledsoe returned to health but, such was Brady's effect on the team, their head coach, Bill Belichick, gave a vote of confidence to the younger man.

On Sunday, with the Patriots protecting a slender 7-3 lead, Brady fell heavily under a challenge from the Steelers' Lee Flowers – the Patriots said they will not make an announcement on Brady's availability until later this week – while Bledsoe returned to serious action for the first time in four months, and within moments had thrown a touchdown pass to David Patten with less than a minute remaining before half-time.

Bledsoe's numbers were nothing special, only 10 of 21 pass attempts completed for 102 yards, but his veteran leadership against the league's top-ranked defence enabled his team to withstand a late Pittsburgh rally. "You need a couple of quarterbacks in this league," said Belichick. "Sooner or later you might need them, and I'm glad we had them today."

The Steelers were also confounded by a pair of Patriot special-teams touchdowns. Troy Brown opened the scoring on a 55-yard punt return, and Antwan Harris returned a blocked field goal early in the second-half. Pittsburgh narrowed the gap, but their quarterback, Kordell Stewart, was intercepted twice in the last three minutes.

"I've been working hard and preparing for this exact same scenario," said Bledsoe, who led New England's last unsuccessful Super Bowl assault five years ago. "Obviously you don't want anything bad to happen to someone else, but I knew I was going to be able to come in and play well." The Rams will be favoured to beat them on Sunday, after grinding out a 29-24 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles. The visitors led 17-13 at the interval, but they barely saw the ball in the second half.

With their potent passing attack held in check by the Eagles determined defence, St Louis turned to their running back, the New Orleans native Marshall Faulk, and he was simply unstoppable. Faulk scored on two second-half touchdown runs, and finished with 159 yards on 31 carries to seal his return to New Orleans.

"I couldn't ask for anything better than to go home and play in front of my family," he said. "I couldn't have written a script better than this." Nor could the veteran Ram defensive back Aeneas Williams. One of the best players of his era, he toiled in vain with the Arizona Cardinals for a decade before joining St Louis at the start of the season. Fittingly, he had the last word, intercepting Philadelphia's quarterback Donovan McNabb with less than two minutes remaining, to ensure St Louis a second Super Bowl appearance in the last three years.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: St Louis 29 Philadelphia 24. AFC CHAMPIONSHIP : New England 24 Pittsburgh 17. (St Louis play New England in Super Bowl XXXVI, New Orleans, Sun).