Effort Not Sorely Zolak-ing Without Bledsoe

From Associated Press

Scott Zolak delivered a message to his skeptics and helped send New England into the playoffs.

Making his first start in three years for the injured Drew Bledsoe, Zolak led two scoring drives in the last eight minutes as the Patriots defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 24-21, Sunday on Adam Vinatieri’s 35-yard field goal with three seconds left.

“That stuff ticks you off,” he said of those who believed the Patriots had no chance to win. “It motivates me to go out there and prove people wrong.”


Zolak matched Steve Young’s two touchdown passes. He also did what Bledsoe did twice with a fractured right index finger--lead the Patriots on winning drives in the last minute. But the injury finally forced Bledsoe to the sidelines Sunday, ending the longest current starting streak among AFC quarterbacks at 58 games.

“I’m just glad I got a chance to show people what I could do,” said Zolak, who started his sixth game in eight seasons with the Patriots. “Over the years, I’ve pretty much been along for the ride.”

He may be driving again next Sunday against the New York Jets if the Patriots rest Bledsoe for their wild-card game the following week.

“He did a great job,” Patriot Coach Pete Carroll said, “just running the ball, in command, handling the clock at the end of the game. He did it like a true pro.”

The victory and Tennessee’s loss to Green Bay clinched the wild-card berth for New England (9-6). The playoff-bound 49ers (11-4) had their winning streak ended at four games.

“We were against a team that had to win to make the playoffs,” 49er Coach Steve Mariucci said. “We had a chance to put them away and didn’t do it.”

Zolak, who completed 14 of 30 passes for 205 yards, had help from Robert Edwards, who rushed for 101 yards and scored two touchdowns, and a defense that sacked Young five times, intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble.

“We didn’t move the ball in the second half. We got into a run, run, pass pattern. On the road, you have to extend the lead,” said Young, who was 18 for 23 passing for 267 yards and twisted his left knee on a sack on San Francisco’s final play.

Young said he would have an MRI today.

The Patriots started their winning drive after their fifth sack of Young forced a punt. Beginning at the 49er 41 with 1:48 left, they got to the 17 on a six-yard run by Edwards and a five-yard face-mask penalty against Chris Doleman.

After Zolak went to his knee on first down, Vinatieri made the winning kick.

The 49ers had a drive lasting 7 minutes and 45 seconds in the third quarter, but punted. On their next possession, Willie Clay intercepted Young’s pass, giving the Patriots the ball at the 49er 49.

Zolak completed four passes on the drive, including one of four yards to Ben Coates on fourth and two at the 13 that kept it alive. Edwards’ five-yard scoring run two plays later and Vinatieri’s extra point tied the game at 21 with 7:34 left.

“This team [New England] is not an exceptional one,” San Francisco linebacker Ken Norton said. “If we’re going to be a contender we have to beat teams like this. We didn’t protect the ball on offense.”

The 49ers sputtered on their first three drives. Jerry Rice lost a fumble on the first, Young was sacked twice on the second and Wade Richey had a 31-yard field goal attempt blocked on the third. In the fourth quarter, they managed 10 yards and one first down.