FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots had their best outing of the season Sunday against a depleted Steelers team, posting a 55-31 win by running away with the game in the fourth quarter.
New England heads into its bye week at 7-2 and with a two-game lead over the surprising Jets in the AFC East after New York upset New Orleans at MetLife Stadium.
The offensive outburst and overall performance of his team left even coach Bill Belichick wondering how it all came together.
“Well, I’m not exactly sure how it all happened today; maybe we got our inspiration from the Red Sox, I’m not sure,” Belichick said. “It was certainly a big point output and that’s always good. I thought our guys played hard today. We had a few problems there but overall I thought we hung in there, made some plays in all three phases of the game, scored some points.
“I thought these guys put in a really good week of work and showed up on Sunday. That’s always a good thing.”
Several members of the Red Sox, as well as team owner John Henry, were on hand for the game, honored in a pregame ceremony; pitcher Jon Lester and the World Series trophy served as honorary captains.
After a stellar third quarter a week earlier against the Dolphins to turn the game in their favor, the Patriots stumbled out of the locker room at the half Sunday and allowed Pittsburgh to tie the game.
But New England rebounded in a big way in the fourth with 28 points; the 55 points are the most ever given up by Pittsburgh, one of the oldest, most storied franchises in the NFL.
“It’s embarrassing,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “This isn’t an organization that does that. But what can you say? It’s on film now.”
“That’s a proud group over there,” New England cocaptain Logan Mankins said of the Steelers (2-6). “They’ve got some proud guys that have been there a long time and play hard. I know [defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau is very good. I know they’re not happy about it. But we got the better of them tonight.”
The Patriots, who have had their share of ups and downs this year, had season highs in several categories, with 33 first downs, 197 rushing yards, 432 passing yards, and a 58 percent conversion rate (7 for 12) on third downs.
Their 610 total yards of offense were the third most in franchise history, and for the first time in team history, there were three receivers with more than 100 yards: Rob Gronkowski (nine receptions, 143 yards, touchdown), Aaron Dobson (five receptions, 130 yards, 2 touchdowns), and Danny Amendola (four receptions, 122 yards, touchdown).
“They were clicking today,” Matthew Slater said of Tom Brady (four TDs, 432 passing yards) and the offense. “Everybody was making plays. It’s always good to see that, and I didn’t have to cover too many punts, so that wasn’t bad either. It was just great to see those guys play well, the run game get going, offensive line playing well. It was a big-time effort by those guys.”
If there was a negative from the game, it was a familiar topic: injuries. A day after placing defensive tackle Tommy Kelly on injured reserve, the Patriots may have suffered perhaps one or two more significant injuries: safety Steve Gregory left the game in the second half with a thumb injury, receiver Austin Collie suffered a second-quarter knee injury and did not return, and defensive end Rob Ninkovich also did not finish the game.
It was announced that Ninkovich had a foot injury, and though he did not play again, he was on the sideline, giving hope that perhaps his injury is not significant. He walked through the locker room postgame with a slight limp, but he was in street shoes, not a walking boot, nor was he wearing a visible brace. There was no sign of Gregory or Collie after the game.
The Patriots defense had two interceptions as well as a forced fumble and recovery, extending its streak of games with at least one turnover to 36. They also sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, two of them by Chandler Jones.
“I owe it to the secondary, to be honest with you,” Jones said. “The secondary is doing a good job if you go and cut up the film and watch the game, both of the sacks I had were coverage sacks, so congrats and thank you to the secondary for just doing a good job of getting those receivers covered.”
Jones now has 8½ sacks for the season.
The Patriots had a 24-10 halftime lead, but the Steelers had touchdowns on each of their first two drives of the third quarter to tie the game. They had the benefit of a short field for the first, after Troy Polamalu stripped Stevan Ridley of the ball on a screen pass, and it was recovered by linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Though Ridley has had his share of fumbling problems — and has been benched for them — the Patriots put him right back on the field when they got the ball back, and Belichick noted after the game that it was just a good play by Polamalu.
Pittsburgh also had a short field for its second third-quarter score after a 24-yard Antonio Brown punt return to the New England 46.
But the Patriots got a 32-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski before the quarter was out to regain the lead, and built on it from there.
When the defense forced the Steelers to punt at the end of the third, Julian Edelman’s season-long 43-yard return set up the Patriots nicely, and they were in the end zone in five quick plays, punctuated by a 17-yard front-corner-of-the-end-zone pass to Dobson.
Dobson scored again on an 81-yard touchdown, with a gorgeous sideline pass from Brady setting him up to sprint over the goal line. It was the longest play of the season for New England.
“The safeties were getting low and we took a shot,” Brady explained. “Josh [McDaniels, offensive coordinator] made a great call and A.D. slipped behind [the defender]. We were talking about that play all week and giving him a chance to get behind the defense.”
In between Dobson’s scores, Ridley (26 carries, 115 yards, 2 touchdowns) had a 5-yard touchdown. LeGarrette Blount got the day’s final score, a hard-fought run, also for 5 yards.
There was still talk of there being a lot of season left to play and work yet to do, but there was a good vibe around the Patriots after the game, after the offense put up the kind of performance it has been accustomed to having almost weekly over the last six or seven years.
“It feels good,” Brady said. “They don’t always go like that. That was a fun day. It was good execution; I think for the most part, that was our best day of execution. You don’t wake up in the morning and think they’re going to be like that. That was pretty sweet.”