You are lying to yourself if you call yourself a Patriots fan and seriously saw this one coming. Yes, Tom Brady is now 6-1 in his last seven games against the Steelers (playoffs included). But after the previous week’s pathetic performance against Eric Mangini’s Cleveland Browns, a 39-26 New England blowout win against one of the best AFC teams is hardly what anyone expected.
In fact, I expected the Steelers to win a close, low-scoring game. Had I been made aware beforehand that the Pats under Bill Belichick were 22-2 in games following a loss since 2003, I might have thought differently. In the end, I’m glad I was (and am sure plenty of other New England fans were) wrong.
The score and final stats were hardly indicative of how the Pats dominated most of this game Sunday night, especially up front on both sides of the ball. Guard Stephen Neal was out but with Logan Mankins back for his second game (after sitting out the first seven), Tom Brady had all the protection he needed as he threw for 350 yards (spread out to eight different players), three TDs and emphatically ran one into the end zone himself for one more.
It was the first 300-yard game of the season for Brady but more noticeably, his most emotional game in years. Maybe he didn’t like the way Steelers players were hitting him under the pile, or maybe their cheap shots over the years (Lee Flowers) were still sealed in his mind. Or perhaps he just wanted perfection, meaning no dropping easy throws (Wes Welker) or poor blocking on unsuccessful third-and-short situations. Whatever it was, he extra furious at his teammates when things went wrong, and all smiles when success went his team’s way.
Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski made up for his worst week as a pro against Cleveland last week (when he caused two game-changing turnovers), by catching all three of Brady’s TD passes. That set a record for Patriots rookies and tight ends in the process.
The only knucklehead in this game also helped seal the victory with a 32-yard interception return for a TD courtesy of a Ben Roethlisberger pass midway through the fourth quarter: James Sanders. Being the heir to hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison, he made the careless move early in the game of leading with his helmet in a tackle of Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward, who left the game for good with a (mild) concussion. Ward is one of the most physical receivers in the game, so he kind of got a taste of his own medicine. But it’s likely that Sanders will be fined for that hit, even though no penalty was called on the play.
In all, the Patriots stand tied with the Jets atop the AFC East with 7-2 records. Former Boston College QB Matt Ryan and his Atlanta Falcons also have a 7-2 record, representing the NFC. But can anyone say with good authority that any of the three teams tied for the best record in the NFL right now is the best team in their own conference, let alone the league? I don’t think so.
With a young secondary and defensive line and inconsistent offensive production (Welker finally looked like himself with eight catches for 89 yards Sunday), you don’t know which New England Patriots team is going to show up week to week, even with MVP candidate Tom Brady always at the helm.
Even more of a wild card is special teams now that Stephen Gostkowski is out for the season and the supposedly consistent Shayne Graham (who missed an extra point Sunday), is in. My advice for the return game: Just don’t let the team of Gronkowski and Sammy Morris handle any more kicks/punts. That’s what Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman are for.
The team they play next week also has been inconsistent and has quite a few new faces, even though they, the Indianapolis Colts, at 6-3 are still a dangerous foe.
Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady is always fun to watch, no matter how their respective teams are playing week to week. But in addition to getting one step closer to ensuring a playoff spot, the right to join (Indy) or remain (New England) one of the AFC’s elite teams is at stake Sunday at 4:15 p.m ET. Getcha popcorn and cold drinks ready for this one.
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