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The giant slumbers no more

Let's have a quick show of hands. Anybody out there still wondering if the New England Patriots intend to remain hell-bent in pursuit of this perfect season stuff?

Because, to use the phrase the Patriots themselves seem to best understand, I "guarantee'' you they are. There will be no backing off from the challenge of perfection. No taking a pass on history in favor of resting starters for the playoffs. The Team That Can Not Lose is going for it all. And it's as obvious as the hoodie that occasionally covers you-know-who's head.

If you needed a new reminder of what kind of will these Patriots have, where their desire level stands as mid-December approaches, just review Sunday's 34-13 dismantling of Pittsburgh, the team that supposedly was best positioned to end New England's 2007 magic carpet ride.

So much for that ill-informed notion. Motivated to the extreme by the garden-variety guarantee of victory issued by second-year Steelers safety Anthony Smith at mid-week, the Patriots made beating the Steelers seem like the most urgent, most desperate task ever put before them.

Once again we discovered these Patriots are not messing around. They mean business. They didn't want to just win on Sunday, they wanted to win mean. They wanted to bruise the Steelers and leave a mark on their psyche, just in case they should meet again.

And Smith foolishly handed them the perfect weapon.

"It's almost like when you go to a pizza shop and you order your pizza, and you say I want extra sausage,'' said Patriots veteran safety Rodney Harrison, of the added motivation that Smith's guarantee inspired in New England's locker room. "There's nothing wrong with extra sausage.''

Challenged in unexpectedly tight games two weeks in a row, against the Eagles and Ravens, the Patriots jacked themselves up courtesy of Smith's words and used 'em against the Steelers, with extreme prejudice. They didn't just target Smith. They abused the young free safety, hanging him out to dry on touchdown bombs of 63 and 56 yards to Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney. Tom Brady's exquisitely executed play-action fake reeled in Smith and was the key to Moss's score; and the other touchdown came on a Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney flea-flicker, on which Smith unwisely bit once again.

Brady, trying to conceal a mile-wide grin, attempted to refute the notion in the post-game that the Patriots had drawn a bull's-eye on Smith's back. Let's say he wasn't very convincing.

"No, he just ended up being in the right place at the right time,'' Brady said. "He's a good player. I think he was trying to motivate his guys.''

Instead, he wound up motivating the Patriots. Who really don't need much in the way of outside incentive these days, what with making NFL history staring them in the face at 13-0.

"I've played in the league 10 years now, and I've never heard a player ever say anything like that,'' said Moss, who finished with a team-best seven catches for 135 yards, including his career-best 18th and 19th receiving touchdowns, the second-highest single-season total ever. "I don't really know if his team had his back or not. But it (the guarantee) was said, it was documented, it was printed, and it came to us.''

Like a gift from heaven. The vaunted bulletin-board fodder that football coaches everywhere seek out was wrapped up like an early Christmas present for the Patriots.

From Thursday on, I had been asked on various radio shows whether I thought anything as tired and trite as another victory guarantee would actually motivate New England? Smith's silly boast, remember, wasn't exactly of the Joe Namath variety. He put more qualifiers in his promise of victory than you see at an Olympic Trials.

No matter. Hedges or no hedges, the Patriots don't need much to have their honor impugned. With New England, there's no slight too small. No insult too meaningless. The Pats aren't above using far less than Smith's guarantee to pump up the motivational meter; so of course, I knew what they'd do with Smith's gaffe.

They'd make him eat some of their famed humble pie, in several large and humiliating servings.

"Well, everything happens for a reason,'' said Harrison, when asked about Smith's role in both long touchdown passes. "That's why in life you remain humble, continue to work hard and be thankful for everything God blessed you with.

"When I was a young player like that, I barely opened my mouth. You've got to just go out there and play football and not worry about the other crap that's going on.''

If there was any lapse in intensity in New England's past two games, those near-defeats against Philly and Baltimore, the Patriots re-discovered their fire against the Steelers. Thanks to Smith and his inability to back up his big words. Bill Belichick couldn't have asked for anything more than getting his ridiculously talented team to again go for the throat.

Steelers rookie head coach Mike Tomlin said he doubted Smith's comments "were a motivating factor'' in the Patriots' performance, but he was in the distinct minority in his own locker room. Many of Pittsburgh's veterans seemed to know that Smith had carelessly awoke a sleeping dog.

"It definitely did (motivate them),'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I had a couple of their guys as I was coming on the field during the TV timeout who said, 'Why are your guys opening their mouths? We're so fired up out there.' We got some young guys. Lesson learned for the young guy.''

But a lesson that came at a costly price, at least in terms of Pittsburgh's own confidence level, as a playoff berth comes into sight. The Steelers left Gillette Stadium with considerably less swagger than they had entering Sunday.

"They made a couple big plays today, and I think the reason they did those big plays was because of what (Smith) said maybe,'' Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Trying to take a shot at him. Why not take a shot? The shot went their way.

"Absolutely, they were motivated. When someone says you guarantee no matter what they do, you're going to win, absolutely that affects the way the team looks at you. They came ready to go.''

The Patriots are ready to go all right. Pushed around in Baltimore Monday night, they were determined not to let the Steelers out-physical them on Sunday. They took the fight to Pittsburgh, and out-smash-mouthed a smash-mouth team.

"We played Patriots football, and this is what I'm used to playing here for the past five years,'' Harrison said. "Going out here and not taking any crap. The last two weeks really opened up your eyes. That wasn't Patriots football. We came in today and really re-focused.''

So it's 13 wins down for New England, with three more to go in the regular season; and then three more in the playoffs. At this point, I can almost guarantee this much: No one else in the NFL this year is going to make the mistake that Anthony Smith made against New England.

"There's all kind of young players in the league, so there's no telling what will come out next,'' Moss said. "But I really think by him being young and getting caught up in the game and all the hype, something was bound to slip out.

"I think the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, because of their toughness and their mouths, they've got a lot in common. They did their talking throughout the week, and we did our talking on the field today.''

Getting the last word, and getting it their way, is what these Patriots have always been about.

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