Monday November 15th, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- Here are five things we learned from New England's 39-26 throttling of Pittsburgh on Sunday night at Heinz Field, in a surprisingly one-sided showdown of AFC superpowers ...

1. Tom Brady was really into this one, and really wanted it. Beaucoup. Did you see Brady go into his full windup to spike that ball after his 3-yard, third-quarter touchdown on a quarterback sneak? Brady almost dislocated his elbow getting everything he could into the spike; and with that resounding move, reminding Pittsburgh and its beloved football team that New England will have a say in this year's AFC Super Bowl discussion after all.

Brady had a tour-de-force performance against the Steelers, throwing for three touchdowns, rushing for a fourth and totaling 350 yards passing with a 117.4 rating. Foot injury? What foot injury? He locked in all night and was throwing everything on a line, no pass more accurate than his 19-yard touchdown laser to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski in the first quarter, which opened the scoring and gave New England a lead it never relinquished.

But it wasn't just what Brady did; it was how he played. He was demonstrative on the New England sideline, with TV cameras catching him exhorting his offensive line at one point, and he was even more animated on the field, where he seemed to be willing the Patriots to their signature win of the season thus far.

"I don't know, I was pretty excited,'' Brady said, when asked about his windmill spike. "I don't score very often. I don't run much. I don't sneak from far out.''

Brady often doesn't tell the whole truth in a postgame setting, either. At least not to the media. But he got to the crux of things on this night when he said: "We haven't been this happy [in this locker room] in a long time.''

The past week, of course, was not easy for the Patriots, who were humbled at Cleveland in Week 9, by a hefty 20-point margin. Brady takes every loss personally, but you get the feeling that one stung even more than usual. Sunday's winning effort, in turn, was reminiscent the old, dynasty-era Patriots, who always made some poor opponent pay dearly after a loss. Any loss.

We need not remind you that no one in the last decade has responded better to defeat than Bill Belichick's teams. The Patriots are 24-2 after a loss in the past seven seasons, with only a pair of two-game losing streaks in that span. New England uses a loss to rededicate itself to doing the things the Patriot Way, and the results were again on full display against the shell-shocked Steelers. New England was coolly efficient, with an impressive dose of killer instinct (29 points in the second half).

"You know we're pretty good when we play and execute the right way,'' Brady admitted. "When we do the right things, and when everyone's doing their job. We got off to a fast start [Sunday] and played from ahead the whole game, and that's a big difference. Anything can happen each week, but we're 7-2 with a lot of football left. Like I said, it's an emotional win. Everybody, especially me, has to get some rest and be ready to come back Wednesday.''

That's because New England is only halfway through its two-week run of measuring-stick games. Next comes the annual blood-letting against the Colts (6-3), this time in Foxboro's Gillette Stadium next Sunday. Let New England win that one as convincingly as it did this one, and we might have to start thinking of the Patriots and the Jets (both 7-2) as the co-favorites to represent the AFC n the Super Bowl.

2. For the Steelers and their fans, this loss must've felt like a horror movie they've seen way too many times. The Steelers may not have believed this was the same Patriots team that showed up last week and lost badly to the Browns, Pittsburgh's division rival.

Sunday night's version of the Patriots had to be very familiar to the Steelers, who have absorbed some significant butt-kickings from New England at Heinz Field over the years.

New England is now 4-1 in this stadium, including those crushing AFC title-game wins during the 2001 and '04 playoffs. You don't see this much here in football-mad Pittsburgh, but Steelers fans were actually streaming out of the ballpark even before the end of the third quarter, with New England up 17-3 and driving for another touchdown.

"This was an easy game to get fired up for,'' Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "We didn't need any extra motivation, especially after last week. We had a whole week to think about how we played, and I think we played a lot better than we did [last week]. We didn't want a repeat.''

Neither did the Steelers, but they got one anyway. It was yet another home-field drubbing at the hands of the Patriots; and at this point, I'm pretty sure the Steelers (6-3) have the team from Massachusetts in their heads. When it matters most, Pittsburgh can't beat New England.

"It's plain and simple,'' Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "We just got our butt whupped. That's what it boils down to. Tonight we got our butt whupped. They came in here and they handed it to us. We did take a hit. No excuses. We have to come back tomorrow and do what we need to do, feed off this, and make sure it doesn't happen again.''

3. The Steelers have a reputation for intimidating opponents, but the Patriots took the fight to Pittsburgh this time. New England got criticized last week for playing soft against Cleveland, but the Patriots were clearly the more physical team in this game. Even the Steelers were willing to acknowledge it in the postgame.

"They beat us,'' Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. "They executed better and were more physical. They did what they wanted to do basically.''

That they did, and they did it whenever the game remotely felt in doubt. Look what New England did on the crucial possessions to open each half: In the first, after the Steelers punted on their opening drive, the Patriots went 70 yards on eight plays in 4:07, with Brady finding Gronkowski on the first of this three touchdown catches. In the second half, getting the ball first, New England drove 78 yards on 10 plays, using up 5:12 before Brady again hit Gronkowski from nine yards out, putting the Patriots up 17-3 and effectively taking the wind out of the Steelers' sails.

The Patriots went out and imposed their will on Pittsburgh's defense, putting points on the board virtually any time they needed to. The game wasn't over when New England went up by 14 points, but it felt like it was. And even a 23-point fourth-quarter by Pittsburgh didn't really dent New England's confidence at any point.

The Patriots often-maligned defense pressed the issue against the Steelers for most of the game. New England sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times (with five players having at least one-half sack), twice ending Steelers drives on sacks in the game's opening 17-plus minutes.

The Patriots got their hands on a couple of Roethlisberger passes on Pittsburgh's opening drive, and knocked Big Ben's go-to receiver -- Hines Ward -- out of the game with a concussion just seconds before the end of the first quarter. On their first 18 offensive snaps, the Steelers amassed all of 18 total yards as the more aggressive Patriots defense forced punts on Pittsburgh's opening three possessions. At the two-minute warning in the first half, the Steelers offense had produced just 93 total yards and six first downs.

New England obviously determined it would not be pushed around by the Steelers, who love to fly around to the ball and use the reputations of hard-hitting safety Troy Polamalu and outside linebacker James Harrison to their fullest advantage. Even on Brady's touchdown sneak, a couple Patriots alluded to Brady's emphatic spike as being a byproduct of the Steelers trying to twist their quarterback into a pretzel at the bottom of the pile.

"Tom gets fired up at times, but in this case there was a little extra sugar being tossed around out there,'' Patriots left tackle Matt Light said. "They were torquing his head and stuff like that underneath the pile. So, he was letting them know he scored.''

Mankins called the Steelers' attempt to swing the physicality factor back toward them "part of the game,'' but he then took a none-too-thinly-veiled shot at Polamalu and his famous locks.

"We don't care how long your hair is, you can't do anything to our quarterback,'' Mankins said. "You're not going to rough our quarterback up.''

In this game at least, the Patriots handed out most of the rough stuff, especially on the scoreboard. Not a typical turn of events for Pittsburgh, but alas, it wasn't like the Steelers ever had much of a choice.

4. Pittsburgh always prides itself on a next-man-up mentality, but perhaps it's simply missing too many injured players. The cumulative toll of Pittsburgh's injury list seemed to be truly costly Sunday for the first time all season.

For openers, the Steelers dealt with a reshuffled offensive line that featured Jonathan Scott filling in at left tackle for Max Starks (neck, out for the season), and Ramon Foster replacing starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu (ankle, knee). How'd the replacements do? Well, those five sacks and the near-constant pressure the Patriots generated against Roethlisberger provided a good deal of the answer.

Then, a quarter into Sunday night's defeat, the Steelers injury situation worsened when Ward was knocked out of the game with what was first announced as a neck injury. But it looked all the world like a concussion from the way Ward had to be helped off the field, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in the postgame confirmed Ward had indeed suffered a concussion.

Ward was hit in the side of the helmet by Patriots safety James Sanders (yep, the dreaded helmet-to-helmet contact) while attempting to make a catch, and also seemed to bang his head on the ground as he fell. He was obviously woozy, and required plenty of attention once he was on the sideline.

Besides the offensive line issues and Ward's absence, the Pittsburgh defensive line has already taken its share of hits this season. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) was inactive for the third time in four games, and underrated defensive end Aaron Smith is potentially out for the season with a triceps injury.

5. I'm not sure either team should feel all that confident in the state of their kicking games after this one. The Steelers perhaps have even more reason to worry, and that's with the Patriots losing kicker Stephen Gostkowski to a season-ending leg injury last week.

Much-maligned Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed missed yet another field goal, shanking a chip-shot 26-yarder that would have cut the Patriots' lead to 11 late in the third quarter. The kick was his seventh miss this season in just nine games, making him 15 of 22 overall. Most of Reed's issues have come at home in always tricky Heinz Field, and he got loudly booed after Sunday night's misfire.

Right after Reed missed, the Patriots had their own kicking issue to deal with. New kicker Shayne Graham somehow blew an extra point wide right after Brady's QB-sneak TD.

Graham did make his two field goal attempts, from 31 and 36 yards out, but clearly there's more work to be done on that part of New England's game. Besides Graham, the ex-Bengals kicker, the Patriots were debuting a new long-snapper in Matt Katula against the Steelers, and the combination of him, Graham and holder Zoltan Mesko (the team's rookie punter) have weeks to go until they're completely comfortable together.

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