FOXBOROUGH - Midway through the third quarter, the fans were singing, “We are the champions . . . of the world.”
A little too early to be singing, you say? Not on this night. The opening game of the Patriots’ 2002 season was over by then, much to the disappointment of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” crew but much to the joy of the partisan crowd.
The rematch of the AFC Championship game ended the way the one last January did - with the Patriots winners over the Pittsburgh Steelers, this time by a resounding 30-14 in front of 68,436 fans in the first regular-season game played at Gillette Stadium.
After a festive pregame show - which included a coin flip by honorary captain and former President George H.W. Bush, and a grand Patriots entrance through a cloud of smoke - the 2 1/2-point favorite Steelers were left in the dust.
The Patriots wore down the Steelers with a spread-out offense that often included five wide receivers and an empty backfield. At one point, Tom Brady called 25 consecutive pass plays. He wound up completing 29 of 43 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
“Charlie [Weis] came up with a great game plan,” said Brady, who led the Patriots to 365 yards of total offense. “We came up with a no-huddle, and that’s tough on the defense from a conditioning standpoint. We got good performances from three guys we didn’t have last year [Christian Fauria, Cam Cleeland, and Deion Branch].”
“We wanted to establish the run,” deadpanned Bill Belichick. “But, really, the players really played well. Pittsburgh was tough. We were lucky to get 10 points in the first half against them. You take whatever morsels you can. We were able to spread them out in the second half and we got some breaks.”
Fauria, Donald Hayes, and Branch caught touchdown passes from Brady.
Adam Vinatieri, another hero of the Super Bowl campaign, kicked field goals of 45, 28, and 27 yards.
The New England defense was aggressive and disruptive, picking off Kordell Stewart on each of Pittsburgh’s first two series.
The Steelers were down by only 3 at halftime, but a stalled second-period drive that got to the 1 but ended with a missed 39-yard field-goal attempt seemed to take the starch out of them.
The Patriots won it with two strong possessions to start the third quarter.
After Kimo Von Oelhoffen sacked Brady for an 11-yard loss on the first series of the third quarter, Brady found a new target, Cleeland, for 8 yards before throwing down the right sideline to David Patten for a 37-yard gain over Brent Alexander, putting New England at the Pittsburgh 40.
Brady then hit Hayes with a quick toss to the left side, with Hank Poteat missing a tackle to spring him loose down the sideline. Hayes got a big block from Branch on Lee Flowers, and romped in for the touchdown, making it 17-7, Patriots, with 1:33 gone in the third.
From there, the Steelers stumbled into oblivion.
Jerome Bettis, held to 35 yards, busted through the middle for a 14-yard gain before coughing up the football for the first time in 760 rushing attempts. The ball was recovered by Victor Green, who had left the game earlier with a leg injury, but was Johnny-on-the-spot in giving the Patriots the ball at the Pittsburgh 49.
On Brady’s 25th straight pass, he led Troy Brown beautifully down the left sideline, and Brown made the catch for a 19-yard gain.
The Steelers challenged the call, believing Brown’s drag foot was out of bounds.
Before the video review could take place, the officials reversed the call, ruling the pass incomplete.
The Patriots then threw the sandbag on the field, challenging the call. And after a review, the pass was ruled complete.
The consecutive-pass streak ended there, as the Patriots ran it four straight times. They capped off the drive with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Branch (who led the Patriots with six catches for 83 yards), the rookie faking Deshea Townsend and going in for the score, making it a 24-7 Patriots lead.
With 2:08 remaining in the third quarter, Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal made it a 27-7 rout against a Steelers team that looked beaten.
Stewart, who had thrown 10 career interceptions against the Patriots, started the game rattled. Simple as that.
Two of his three picks came at the hands of Terrell Buckley, re-signed to the team Thursday and activated just two days ago. His first pick, on the game’s third play, gave the Patriots the ball at their 46-yard line. But that opportune field position went by the boards when the Pittsburgh defense saved Stewart with stout play. The Patriots went three and out.
The Steelers defense soon would be asked to perform the same feat a second time. One play after getting the ball back, Stewart made an poor throw right into the arms of former Steeler Mike Vrabel at the Pittsburgh 26. Vrabel returned the ball to the 20, from where Brady acted quickly and decisively, pump-faking left and throwing to Marc Edwards to the right for 11 yards. Three Steeler penalties put the Patriots at the 4, from where Brady finished off the drive by floating one to the right to a wide open Fauria, who took it into the end zone. It was 7-0 with 10:57 remaining in the first quarter.
The crowd exploded at seeing the first touchdown at Gillette Stadium, but the boisterous fans were silenced not too long after.
On the Steelers’ next possession, they sustained a 74-yard drive on 10 plays. This time Stewart played it error-free. He threw downfield to Hines Ward, who drew a pass interference call on Ty Law. The 23-yard gain put the ball at the Patriots 49-yard line.
The Steelers did a little of this and a little of that as they proceeded downfield with diverse offense - a couple of Stewart draws, an 11-yard crossing pass to Ward, and completions of 10 yards to Antwaan Randle El and 8 to Ward. Stewart then tossed one quickly out to the left to Ward, who deked Law and ran around him into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass. With 6:07 remaining in the first quarter, it was 7-7.
Neither team could do much on the ground in the first quarter. Bettis managed only 10 yards on five carries before taking a seat for Amos Zereoue. Antowain Smith gained 9 yards on four carries. Neither runner had a run longer than 6 yards.
Bettis returned midway through the second quarter to lead a very effective drive. He rambled 17 yards off right tackle to the Patriots’ 49, the longest run of the game to that point. Stewart, who looked like a completely different quarterback following the second interception, showed no signs of having Belichick in his head.
He tossed to tight end Mark Bruener for 8 yards, then dropped back to pass and used his legs to run away from pressure for 10 yards to the 15. Stewart then went for whole enchilada, tossing a fade to Ward in the end zone. Once again, Law was flagged for pass interference, and the Steelers had the ball at the 1-yard line. But Pittsburgh started going backward, first called for a false start to negate a play on which Bettis went into the end zone. Stewart then was sacked by Tedy Bruschi for a 1-yard loss to the 7. It got worse. Stewart threw what should have been a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the end zone, but Burress couldn’t stay in bounds.
The drive stalled amid a bizarre set of circumstances. Stewart tossed a pass to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala to the 1-yard line, but Fuamatu-Ma’afala was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. That forced a field goal attempt. Todd Peterson’s attempt was to be from 34 yards, but the Steelers were called for another false start, pushing the kick back 5 yards. From 39, Peterson, who replaced the embattled Kris Brown - who lost some games because of his ineptness last season - missed the chance to give the Steelers the lead.
The Patriots got the ball at their 29 and went to a spread offense, with five wide receivers. Brady attempted eight straight passes in a no-huddle offense - nothing longer than 11 yards. Two of the 11-yarders went to David Patten. When the Patriots were stopped at the Pittsburgh 27, Vinatieri booted a 45-yard field goal with 2:23 remaining to give the Patriots a 10-7 lead at the half.