FOXBOROUGH — Mark Twain was dead before there was a National Football League, but I’m sure if he were alive he would agree that the demise of the Patriots has been greatly exaggerated.
The worst 6-2 team in NFL history bumped its record to 7-2 at its intermission with a 55-31 demolition of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots’ offense erupted like Mount St. Helens, producing 610 total yards, the requisite style points and the most points scored in the NFL in a game this year.
After all the kvetching and lamenting about the unimpressive state of the Patriots, here they sit at 7-2 going into their bye week with as good a chance of winning the American Football Conference as anyone. Who scares you in the AFC now?
Kansas City? Its offense still has the training wheels on. Indianapolis? It doesn’t have Reggie Wayne or a running game. Cincinnati? It’s bipolar. Denver? Peyton Manning has a lot of weapons, including some guy named Welker, but the Broncos play like Doug Moe’s old Denver Nuggets teams — defense optional.
Even with the injuries, the offensive inconsistency, and occasional ineptitude and alleged decline in the franchise quarterback, the Patriots have as good a chance as anyone in an AFC that has a field of contenders as large as the Boston mayoral race before the primary.
As certified Belichick buddy Nick Saban likes to say of his Alabama Crimson Tide, it’s about the process.
But the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick have enjoyed the best of both worlds through the first nine games. It hasn’t always been pretty or easy, but they’ve managed to focus on the process and get results at the same time.
“Look, we’re a lot better now than we were two months ago in September. I don’t care if we won or lost or whatever it is, we’re a better football team,” said Belichick. “We’re doing things better than we did then. There’s a lot of football left to be played, and we have to continue to improve. There are still a lot of things that we can do better.”
The poor Steelers, who entered the game with the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL and left having allowed the most points in their proud history, must be wondering where that diminished Patriots’ offense they heard about was. It certainly wasn’t the one at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
This was clearly the most encouraging effort of the season for the Patriots. Let’s take a little inventory of the harbingers of hope that were apparent against the Steelers.
■ Brady, who had 432 yards passing and four touchdowns, looked every bit the Hall of Fame quarterback he is. It’s amazing how that goes when he has weapons that are healthy and know the offense. Anyone still think TB12 is the problem with this offense? Talk about losing the forest in the conifers.
■ Rob Gronkowski looked like the Gronk of old. He had a career-high nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. He caught the first seven passes thrown his way and had a 100-yard receiving day by halftime.
■ Stevan Ridley had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season (26 rushes for 115 yards and two scores), and after his third-quarter fumble on a pass from Brady, the Patriots didn’t padlock him to the bench like a bicycle. They went right back to him on the next possession, handing him the ball on the first play. That’s what you should do with a 1,200-yard rusher, not treat him like a child who has been grounded.
■ Rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson gained entrance into Brady’s circle of trust. The rookie had the first 100-yard game of his career (five catches for 130 yards and two scores). He connected with Brady on a beautiful back-shoulder throw for a 17-yard touchdown that gave the Patriots a 34-24 lead in the fourth quarter and on an 81-yard long ball that was the knockout punch with 5:15 remaining.
■ Wes Welker replacement Danny Amendola didn’t contract smallpox during the game, and scored his first touchdown as a Patriot. Seriously, Amendola looked great, although it would have helped if the Steelers had covered him, as he collected four catches for 122 yards.
“I think there were some elements of our game that we’re starting to show,” said Brady. “When Gronk plays like that and can produce like that and Danny does that and Aaron does that and the backs do that and the line blocks, it’s a good way to play football.
“We have to keep getting better. It’s been a process for us, but at the bye week, 7-2 is not bad. Hopefully, our best football is ahead of us.”
If the history of past Belichick teams is any indication, then the Patriots’ best football is still down the road and not in the rearview mirror.
The Patriots’ offense needed a game like this to boost its confidence. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the league, positive reinforcement of the hard work you’re putting in is always a welcome sight.
“I think it’s good for everyone on offense to see that we could do it,” said guard Logan Mankins, in response to a question about the young players seeing the fruits of their labor.
The one caveat to this feel-good Sunday is that the Patriots’ defense continues to be decimated by injuries. Safety Steve Gregory (thumb) and indispensable outside linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich (foot) left the game with injuries. With cornerback Aqib Talib sitting out, the Patriots played the fourth quarter without six of their defensive starters.
But Talib should be back after the bye, when the Patriots face Carolina. No disrespect to Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo, but Talib is the one player they can’t afford to lose. Have shutdown corner, will travel far.
These new Patriots are starting to look a lot like the same old Patriots, and just in time.