PITTSBURGH - Maybe we should have known this was coming.
Just when it seemed the Patriots might be struggling, just when it seemed their deficiencies had caught up with them and their road woes were back, they circled the wagons and won a game few expected them to win.
New England sent the Heinz Field faithful home early last night, establishing itself once again as a team to watch in this season of unpredictability, beating the Steelers, 39-26.
They aren’t perfect, to be sure - coach Bill Belichick would be the first to say as much - but these Patriots are getting the job done, coming up with key plays at important moments and maintaining their composure even when things aren’t going their way.
Pittsburgh made things interesting in the fourth quarter, with three touchdowns, but New England bounced back each time and this morning is 7-2.
It is quite the turnaround from last week, when the Patriots were humbled in Cleveland, and a turnaround from last year, when they often buckled under pressure.
“We’re just relaxing; we’re just playing together,” said safety Patrick Chung, who returned after missing the previous two games with a knee injury and had a team-high 10 tackles. “We’ve been playing together so long, so you can only get better. I can’t speak for the whole defense, but we’re playing as a family.”
While Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished with 387 yards passing, he had just 123 through the first three quarters, when New England claimed a 20-point lead and the Steelers were fighting to come back.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been hurt by injuries, and when top receiver Hines Ward was knocked out with a concussion in the first half, it further hindered Roethlisberger. Without Ward, the Steelers’ receivers are a different bunch, and they did their quarterback no favors, dropping several passes.
When Roethlisberger was picked off by James Sanders midway through the fourth quarter on a pass meant for Antwaan Randle El, one of the wideouts filling the Ward void, it essentially sealed the game.
Belichick seemed to dust off an offensive game plan from the 2006 season, when the Patriots went into Minnesota for another prime-time game, this one on Monday night, and attempted just 13 rushes against an excellent Vikings’ run defense while Tom Brady attempted 43 passes.
In the first half last night, Brady attempted 25 passes, with 17 completions for 180 yards, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead split seven carries. Pittsburgh came into the night allowing just 58.3 yards rushing per game, and no more than 75 yards to any opponent.
The Patriots wound up totaling 103 rushing yards, with many of those coming late when they were trying to eat time off the clock.
Belichick said the game plan was crafted to attack the Steelers, but it was tough not to see the similarity.
“Bill doesn’t like to talk about the past and compare teams,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “It didn’t have anything to do with ‘06; it had everything to do with not showing up last week.”
Crumpler and Deion Branch had each talked about the Patriots’ slow starts in recent weeks, saying that was something that had to be fixed.
For last night at least, the offense found a way to reverse that trend.
The Patriots scored 10 points in the first quarter - including the first touchdown the Steelers have allowed this season in the opening quarter - and scored in the opening minutes of the second half to increase their lead to 17-3.
“I think we did a lot of good things out there and we were able to move the ball,” receiver Wes Welker said. “I think there were some frustrating times, too. We were up, 10-0, and we wanted to put more points on the board and we weren’t able to.”
New England scored again just before the end of the third for a 23-3 cushion.
The Steelers, who gained just one first down in the first quarter, did not get on the board until there were just over five minutes left in the first half, stringing together a 76-yard scoring drive, punctuated by a 22-yard field goal from Jeff Reed.
The big play on the drive was a 34-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall. New England’s Devin McCourty, on a corner blitz, was blocked by Emmanuel Sanders, opening a path for Mendenhall, who was pushed out of bounds by Brandon Meriweather.
The Patriots, who had won the coin toss and elected to defer, embarked on a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive at the start of the third quarter, a methodical effort that saw three second-and-8 conversions, the first a 16-yard screen to Green-Ellis, the second a 13-yard catch-and-run by Branch, and the third a 13-yard pass to Welker.
Then, on second and goal from the 9, Brady looked to Rob Gronkowski, who hauled in his second touchdown of the game.
The big rookie wound up with three touchdowns, bouncing back nicely from a tough outing against the Browns.
While Sanders’s pick-6 sent the fans streaming for the exits, they missed a fun fourth quarter. Trailing, 29-10, after the interception, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a quick touchdown drive, finishing with a 15-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace.
The teams essentially traded scores the rest of the way.
“For the most part, we played pretty competitively on defense until the last couple of two-minute drives,” Belichick said. “We really didn’t do a great job on those, but we were able to make a couple of red-area stops, one field goal and one missed field goal ... and we played better on third down, so that gave us an opportunity to get off the field.”
Pittsburgh missed a golden opportunity in the third quarter when Meriweather was flagged for a ticky-tack pass interference call on an attempt to Wallace that put the Steelers 8 yards from the end zone.
But McCourty stopped Mendenhall on first down for no gain, tight end Heath Miller let a touchdown pass go off his hands, and Emmanuel Sanders didn’t even turn around before Roethlisberger looked his way on third down.
Reed lined up for a 26-yard field goal, but it was a line drive that went wide right.
“First of all, credit [Pittsburgh],” Kyle Arrington said. “They’re a hell of a team. To come out with a win - it was ugly at the end - but at the end of the day we’ll take it.”