After delaying the biggest question in the Big Easy, Patriots coach Bill Belichick announced late last night that Tom Brady will be New England's starting quarterback in Sunday's Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams.
While Brady showed no signs of being hindered by his sprained left ankle yesterday afternoon, Belichick waited until watching film of Brady before choosing the second-year quarterback.
"Tom Brady demonstrated in practice today that he is fit to play," Belichick said in a statement last night. "He will be our starting quarterback on Sunday."
Neither quarterback was available to comment after being informed of the decision.
Brady, who took over the starting role as a result of an injury, would not lose the job the same way.
He led the Patriots to an 11-3 regular-season record after Bledsoe suffered a chest injury in the second game of the season. Brady, who then directed New England's win over the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoffs, suffered a high ankle sprain late in the first half of Sunday's 24-17 AFC championship victory in Pittsburgh.
Bledsoe was solid in relief, throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten for his team's only offensive touchdown and converting some critical third downs in the fourth quarter. He had not thrown a pass since he sheared a blood vessel in his chest when he was hit in a loss to the New York Jets -- a span of 126 days.
That stirred one of the most heated debates of any Super Bowl week: Should Brady or Bledsoe start on Sunday?
In the end, Brady proved healthy enough to start. He is listed as probable on the injury report.
"I feel normal," Brady said after practicing with a sturdy practice brace around his left ankle.
When asked about executing the game plan with the injury, he said, "I'm pretty comfortable I can do it all."
Brady, 24, provides more accuracy and makes quicker decisions than Bledsoe. But Bledsoe, 29, has a stronger arm and is more of a threat to deliver big plays.
If Brady struggles or favors the ankle on Sunday, Belichick has the option of calling on Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who signed a 10-year, $103 million contract this past off-season. Many observers indicated that Bledsoe's ability to hit receivers deep would be the better choice in going against the high-scoring Rams.
"As I said a thousand times, I would certainly love to play in this game," Bledsoe said at a morning news conference. "If given an opportunity, I would take it and run with it."
The announcement of Brady as starter continues one of the most surprising story lines of the season.
A sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan in 2000, Brady completed just one pass last season as New England's fourth-string quarterback. A year later, he finished as the AFC's third-rated passer and set a Patriots record with a .639 completion percentage.
After New England began the season 0-2, Brady took over for the injured Bledsoe and closed the regular season by winning his last six starts. Not bad for the 199th player selected two years ago.
"Based on what Tom did for us as a rookie, I don't know that he should have gone a whole lot higher than the sixth round," Belichick said. "The big jump in Tom's performance came from last year to this year in the off-season. He made huge strides in terms of understanding defenses, having a better grasp of our offensive system, gaining some body weight and strength and working on his throwing mechanics.
"Those improvements set the stage for the performance that he's been able to give this year. I think that had he been put in this situation last year, I really doubt that his performance would have been what it was this year. It's a real credit to him with his hard work and improvement over the year that now he's playing at a significantly higher level."
After repeating that he would divulge his starter after the team's first practice, Belichick said he needed more time to watch tape at the team hotel. When asked if he was pleased with how Brady moved in and out of the pocket after practice, Belichick said: "I'm going to wait to take a look at the tape on that one."
Belichick even asked that the identity of who took the most snaps or who practiced with the first team or scout team not be disclosed, according to the pool reporter who was allowed to watch practice. New England's starting quarterback usually takes almost all of the practice snaps with the offense.
The controversy may not be over. In the off-season, the Patriots must decide whether to dump Bledsoe's big salary, explore a long-term deal for the younger Brady or keep both.
Bledsoe's cap number next season is $7.5 million, while Brady's figure will only be $370,833. If Brady gets a new deal to keep him from becoming a restricted free agent after next season, it may be too costly to retain both.
But according to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the team could keep both quarterbacks under their current contracts. Kraft, though, would listen to deals for either Bledsoe or Brady.
"If I have a vote, I would not be against both of them playing for us next year unless someone comes with a blockbuster offer for either one," Kraft said.
For now, Brady is the starter and Bledsoe is the backup.
"As hard as it was to stand there and watch somebody else on the field," Bledsoe said, "it was very gratifying to see one of the truly good guys be rewarded for all of the hard work and dedication that he showed."
St. Louis Rams (16-2) vs. New England Patriots (13-5) What: Super Bowl XXXVI
Where: Superdome, New Orleans
When: Sunday, 6:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Rams by 14