While many pundits jumped off of the Patriots' bandwagon this week--or at least cautioned that the New England-Pittsburgh game would be close--I declared, "a game that is going to be touted all week as an upset in the making will turn out to be a 14 point New England win. You heard it here first." I even offered three possible offensive tactics that the Patriots might employ to good effect: (1) flooding the Pittsburgh secondary with five receivers to burn the Steelers' blitz; (2) using screen passes to the running backs to beat the blitz; (3) running Maroney right at the blitzers to keep them on their heels. The latter two scenarios did not play out (Kevin Faulk only caught three passes for 15 yards and the Patriots only ran for 22 total yards) but the Patriots definitely flooded the Pittsburgh secondary with receivers as Randy Moss (seven receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns), Jabar Gaffney (seven receptions for 122 yards and one touchdown) and Wes Welker (nine receptions for 78 yards and one touchdown) all had big days. Tom Brady completed 32 of 46 passes for 399 yards, tossing four touchdowns without throwing an interception or being sacked even once. So much for the theory that Philadelphia and Baltimore provided a "blueprint" for slowing down New England's record-setting offense. New England shut out Pittsburgh 17-0 in the second half en route to a 34-13 victory and the Patriots did all of this against a defense that still ranks first in the NFL in both points per game (14.5 ppg) and yards per game (245.5 ypg) even after the numbers from this contest are included in their totals.
Of course, little-used Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith--whose 15 minutes of fame are now officially over--authored the prologue to one of this game's subplots by guaranteeing a Steelers victory; the Patriots wrote the remaining chapters with their play on the field. "No matter what you say during the week, it comes down to how you play," said Brady. "I think the receivers probably get more motivated than the quarterback. He just happened to have those plays on him. He's the one who has to go back to his team." Coach Bill Belichick does not often comment about players from other teams but even he took a shot at Smith after the game, saying, "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you."
ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli notes, "the Patriots called 33 consecutive pass plays, and they didn't have a designed run in the second half until only 2:49 remained in the game." Do you think that Smith's remarks influenced the Patriots' play calling a little bit? Is the sky blue? Does Bill Belichick wear a hooded sweatshirt? Are the Patriots trying to kill everybody? Yes, yes and yes. Moss offered this description of Brady, who is on the verge of rewriting the single-season records for quarterbacks: "Poise. Patience. And the determination to go out and kill you at any given time." Next up for the Patriots are the New York Jets, a 3-10 outfit coached by Eric "I sent the NFL after Bill Belichick and now I will have to pay the price" Mangini. No extra motivation there, right?
Moss is not impressed by what he has seen or heard from New England's two most recent opponents: "The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, as far as toughness and their mouths, have a lot in common. They do their talking during the week, and we do our talking on the field. I've played in the league 10 years, and I don't think I've ever heard a player say anything like that. To guarantee a victory--that was something hard. I don't know if his team had his back or not."
Speaking of Baltimore, the real Ravens stood up--or, more precisely, meekly submitted--versus the Indianapolis Colts in the Sunday night game. The Ravens are apparently so impressed with themselves for playing a close game with the Patriots--and so indignant about how the officials allegedly stole that contest from them--that they have nothing left in the tank. The Colts scored the game's first 30 points, cruising to a 44-20 win.
Baltimore and Cincinnati are surprise teams this season in the AFC North--but not for good reasons. The pleasant surprise in the division is the Cleveland Browns, who improved to 8-5 with a 24-18 victory over the New York Jets. The Browns made the win more difficult than it should have been, nearly squandering a 17-6 fourth quarter lead, but this is the kind of game that recent Browns squads have lost with depressing regularity; it is worth noting several reasons why this time was different:
(1) the Browns spent the third overall pick in the draft on left tackle Joe Thomas, who has shored up the offensive line, which now provides time for the passing game to click and also blasts open holes for the running backs. The Browns sealed the deal versus the Jets when Jamal Lewis' 31 yard touchdown run on third and four put Cleveland up 24-15 with 1:31 left in the game.
(2) Lewis is the most productive running back that the Browns have had literally in decades.
(3) Derek Anderson is a top notch quarterback who has a strong arm and usually does not look confused, two traits that have been sorely lacking in most of the Browns' recent quarterbacks.
The Achilles' heel for the Browns--and the reason that this team is competing for a wild card spot but is not a legitimate contender for a championship--is their defense. CBS' Randy Cross said that the defense plays well but it lacks consistency. Unfortunately, a couple things that the Browns' defense consistently does are give up a lot of yards (387 versus the Jets, nearly matching the team's league-worst average yield of 389.7 yards per game) and points (an acceptable 18 versus the Jets but a league-worst 27.4 ppg overall). If General Manager Phil Savage can add some playmakers to the defense to match the exploits of Anderson, Lewis, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and special teams wunderkind Joshua Cribbs then the Browns will finally be able to compete with Pittsburgh for supremacy in the AFC North.