A word to the wise, don't wake the sleeping giant. That was the foolish mistake by the second year player Anthony Smith. It's one he likely won't get the chance to repeat as the Patriots destroyed the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defense on Sunday racking up over 420 yards of offense and winning by three touchdowns, 34-13. The game ended to the crowd chanting "Guarantee, Guarantee" mocking the brash Steeler defender.
The Patriots game plan was simple on Sunday, to embarrass Smith for his bravado and to exploit the Steelers' tendency to crowd the line by spreading out the secondary and making them cover. It was a plan they perfected in the second half as Tom Brady surpassed the 4,000-yard passing mark for the second time in his eight-year career, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns.
Two touchdowns to Randy Moss -- a possible third that was too hot to handle -- and the Brady to Moss connection continued. Moss' two scores allowed him to surpass the Patriots' franchise record of 17 set by Curtis Martin in 1996. It also helped Brady inch ever closer to the all time single-season NFL record of 49 held by Peyton Manning.
Tom Brady rested his arm for this kind of day. Facing the top ranked defense in the NFL, the Patriots' signal caller passed early and often. Were it not for number of drops by his top three receivers (Moss, Welker, Stallworth), Brady could well have surpassed 400 yards and the 4 scores. Brady ended the night with an NFL and career high 45 touchdown passes and only 5 interceptions.
The Steelers hung in with the Patriots in the first half by pressuring Brady and riding the legs of Willie Parker (11 carries for 56 yards in the 1st half). Pittsburgh's offense held the ball for 19 minutes and 22 seconds yet still trailed by 4 at the half, 17-13. Were it not for the drops by Patriots receivers and a missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, New England's lead could have been double digits.
In the second half the Patriots turned up the heat. After a stand by the Patriots defense, the Steelers punted and pinned New England inside their own 20. Unfortunately for opponents, when New England is backed up inside their own 20 yard line, the Patriots score a touchdown nearly 2/3rds of the time. This time they did it again on the defining play of the game. After driving out from the shadow of their goal posts to their own 44, Tom Brady took the snap and threw a backwards pass to Randy Moss who fumbled it. Instead of picking it up and trying to run with the ball as the Steelers defenders closed in on him, Moss tossed it backwards to No. 12 who then heaved it to a wide open Jabar Gaffney for a 56-yard touchdown that put the Patriots on top by 11 points and nearly sealed the win.
The player Gaffney beat on the play was safety Anthony Smith who bit on a play fake and tried desperately to get back to cover Gaffney. It was obvious New England targeted Smith.
At 24-13, the Patriots dialed up the heat on defense and stuffed the Steelers next offensive possession, resulting in a three-and-out for Pittsburgh when they could least afford it. After taking over on the 50 yard line, Tom Brady went to work again. 10 plays, 50 yards and a fourth down conversion later, Wes Welker was standing in the end zone with the ball and the Patriots had 31-13 lead with no doubt the game was over despite just under 4 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) is pursued by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior (51) after Welker caught a Tom Brady pass during second half action of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2007. Welker caught 9 passes and one touchdown as the Patriots defeated the Steelers 34-13 to remain undefeated at 13-0. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
The Steelers needed to score quickly, but must have realized it really wasn't their night when things didn't go well on their next possession. Pittsburgh drove down the field into scoring position and had a first and goal from the Patriots 8 yard line. They just couldn't find a way to get it in the end zone. The Patriots defense denied the Steelers an opportunity for the end zone on two exceptional plays by safety Rodney Harrison. Harrison broke up a fade pass on third and goal from the one, and then tackled Hines Ward who ran a reverse on fourth down to snuff out Pittsburgh's hope. Harrison who was been targeted by teams looking to exploit the ageing veteran's speed, made plays at critical times when the Steelers should have been able to take advantage of the speed diffeence.
Any hope Pittsburgh had of pinning Tom Brady in the end zone for a safety after New England took over on their own 1 yard line quickly evaporated when Brady threw a short dump off to Wes Welker who took the pass and ran for a 22 yard gain. 12 plays and 67 yards later, the Patriots kicked another field goal to seal the game 34-13.
New England improved to a perfect 13- 0 for the first time in franchise history. Their victory sealed a first round payoff bye guaranteeing at least one home game at Gillette Stadium in January. The Steelers dropped to 9-4, leaving open the possibility that Cleveland 8-5 might catch them in the final three games to challenge for the AFC North title.
The Patriots host the New York Jets next Sunday in Foxboro.