Thirty-three thoughts on the Patriots’ 33-3 win over the Steelers . . .
1. It sounds arrogant, but who cares? It’s the expectation and the accusation no matter what at this point. It’s also appropriate, and saying it after the Patriots’ systematic dismantling of Pittsburgh Sunday night is nothing brasher than a reiteration of a truth proven on the field: The Patriots can win any way they want right now.
2. They tormented the Steelers, first by unveiling a sixth championship banner, matching Pittsburgh for the most all-time, then proving on the field that they are much, much closer to a seventh. The Patriots held the Steelers to 3 points, Ben Roethlisberger to 276 yards and no touchdown passes, and James Conner to 21 rushing yards, and they did it without stalwart linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
3. Offensively, they were dominant basically from their second series on. Tom Brady threw for 341 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception, Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon were electric, Rex Burkhead and James White combined for 167 total yards, and Julian Edelman was Julian Edelman (83 receiving yards, a 32-yard pass, and an 8-yard run).
4. The Patriots have a sixth banner at Gillette Stadium because they held the Rams to 3 points in the Super Bowl, they overpowered them on the ground, and Brady made big throws when he needed them. Now Brady has a stockpile of weapons that if all goes right might match what he had in 2007 . . . and the defense and running game remain superb (though Sony Michel had an off night).
5. It’s long season. Injuries can change everything. You know the caveats. But you also know what we saw Sunday night. Based on the names we see on this roster and what those names did on the field — not to mention a certain receiver who will be joining them soon — the Patriots are the best team in football. Everyone else is daydreaming in September about something that will never come.
6. Thoughts on the offensive line: Isaiah Wynn, last year’s first-rounder who was making his NFL debut at left tackle, was excellent, allowing just one rush of Brady (per NBC) in his first 33 dropbacks.
7. Ted Karras, trying to fill the void left by David Andrews, did a fine job blocking, though his shotgun snaps had a little bit of hang time.
8. Right tackle Marcus Cannon, one of the more underrated Patriots, left with a shoulder injury after battling T.J. Watt for three quarters.
9. And the guards, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, were rough and relentless as usual.
10. Jonathan Jones, the fourth-year cornerback who agreed to terms on a three-year, $21 million extension Saturday in the second-most noteworthy transaction of the day, started at cornerback as the Patriots went with five defensive backs right away. His development almost makes you wonder whether his absence from the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles was a bigger deal than Malcolm Butler’s in retrospect.
11. Let the record show that the first touchdown of the Patriots season was scored by someone we weren’t even sure would play a snap this year. Josh Gordon, reinstated in mid-August after violating the conditions of a previous conditional reinstatement for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, scored from 20 yards out with a little over four minutes left in the first quarter.
12. Gordon hurdled one would-be tackler and rammed through another to get into in the end zone. But it might not have been his most impressive play. Gordon had a 44-yard catch in the second quarter on which he took a huge pop from Pittsburgh’s Terrell Edmunds and still made a difficult grab. Didn’t look rusty to me.
13. Van Noy was a surprising inactive for a good reason: His wife had gone into labor. Cris Collinsworth said on the broadcast that Van Noy was the best defender in the playoffs last year. I’d vote Stephon Gilmore there, but the versatile Van Noy was excellent, especially in the Super Bowl. It’s impressive that the defense didn’t miss a beat without him.
14. Gilmore, currently the best cornerback in the NFL, had five tackles and neutralized Steelers star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster until garbage time (he ended up with 78 yards). He does honor to that number 24.
15. Remember when Gilmore seemed so lost when he first got here after signing in March 2017? He has become one of the better big-ticket free agent signings in recent NFL history.
16. We all have certain players we like . . . well, not necessarily irrationally, but maybe we pump their tires frequently just because we feel others don’t appreciate them enough. One of those Patriots for me is Dorsett. He’s not a star, but he’s reliable in a way that matters to Brady, and there’s a little David Patten in his game.
17. Dorsett scored the Patriots’ second touchdown, a 25-yard dart from Brady to put them up, 17-0, in the second quarter. I understand why some might think he was going to be cut, but I don’t get why anyone would want him to be.
18. By the way, I wrote those previous paragraphs before Dorsett’s second touchdown catch, a 58-yard bomb on which all of the Steelers defensive backs apparently morphed into 2007 Anthony Smith. I like the Patten comp, but there’s some Donté Stallworth there too. Not bad for a guy who’s going to be the fourth or fifth receiver on most days.
19. Jamie Collins turns 30 next month, but he sure looks like he has the same burst that made him such an electrifying player at times during his first tenure with the Patriots. Midway through the second quarter, he blew through the line on third down and 1 and swarmed Conner for a 4-yard loss.
20. Collins is wearing a different number now (58 instead of his old 91), and he’s supposedly changed and matured, the time in Cleveland purgatory – or perhaps somewhere south of purgatory — making him more appreciative of the Patriots’ approach. If that’s the case, he may end up being one of the steals in the offseason.
21. Edelman found White on a double pass for 32 yards on the Patriots’ second possession en route to their first touchdown of the season. He might have had a touchdown pass had he thrown it to Gordon deep. But in those situations, I’m just glad he didn’t throw it to Brady. Seen enough of that.
22. Edelman, the former Kent State option QB, is now 3 for 3 for 75 yards passing during the regular season, and 4 for 5 for 126 yards including the playoffs, his 51-yard TD throw to Danny Amendola against the Ravens ranking as one of the biggest plays not involving someone named Malcolm during that Super Bowl run.
23. Maybe NBC’s close-up graphics weren’t doing him any favors, but Roethlisberger is starting to look like Chris Berman circa 2008.
24. Stephen Gostkowski began his 14th season as the Patriots’ kicker by contributing four field goals (from 25, 35, 39, and 41 yards) to go with three extra points. He now has 1,758 points in his career, 12th all-time, and with good health should pass the recently retired Phil Dawson (1,847 points) this season. He has missed a few big ones through the years, but we tend to take for granted the big ones he makes.
25. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a shaky kicker around here. Heck, Matt Bahr — who preceded the greatest ever, Adam Vinatieri — was pretty good too.
26. Jake Bailey’s first official punt as a Patriot — a 53-yard bomb that carried the Steelers’ return man out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 12 — was a nice visual confirmation of the reports that he has a monster leg. Still, I’m surprised Ryan Allen hasn’t caught on anywhere yet.
27. Speaking of good first impressions, Jakobi Meyers’s first NFL catch was a 22-yarder on the Patriots’ third possession in which he took a hard hit and still picked up yards after the catch.
28. Mike Tomlin has the second-highest regular-season winning percentage in the league among active coaches. Further proof that the gap between Bill Belichick — yes, of course he’s first; you thought it was Ben McAdoo? — and every other head coach in the league is wider than the gap between Wayne Gretzky and everyone else on the all-time NHL scoring list.
29. The start to the whole night was spectacular. If you ever get tired of a banner ceremony and all the pomp and circumstance that surround it, go root for the Dolphins or Lions for a couple of weeks and get back to us.
30. The Steelers put together an 11-play, 69-yard drive to get on the scoreboard on their first possession of the second half. But settling for a 19-yard Chris Boswell field goal to cut the Patriots lead to 20-3 was just that — settling. Though I suppose it did pull them to within six more field goals of taking the lead.
31. The downside to all of the intrigue around the Antonio Brown signing is that a player who made the final 53 and got to the be on the sideline for the ceremony Sunday night probably will lose his job Monday to make room. I don’t want to speculate on who it might be, but it’s going to be someone who belongs in the NFL.
32. Maybe you’re aware of this, maybe you blissfully are not, but the premise of this column the past couple of years was to post one “thought” for every point the Patriots score. It’s a fun way to approach a column, and I hit the number this week, but I don’t think I’m always going to do it that way this year.
33. I mean, they’re dropping 50 on the Jets in two weeks, and who needs 50 thoughts on anything these days?