Monday, October 31, 2011

Week 8: Steelers 25, Patriots 17

Happy Halloween

The Steelers finally figured out the trick to beating the Patriots Sunday. Now they have a huge bag of treats to enjoy.

It might be tempting to bite into some of that candy and savor this victory over the Patriots, the Steelers' first win over Tom Brady since Facebook was still just for college students.

But when you went trick-or-treating as a kid, wasn't there always some old coot in the neighborhood who dropped an apple into your bag?

What a bummer that was.

Well, the Steelers better not chuck that apple. That apple is the Ravens, who visit Heinz Field Sunday night. As sweet as beating the Patriots is, beating the Ravens is better for them.

If the Steelers lose to the Ravens, winning the AFC North will be harder than getting Bill Belichick to do stand-up comedy. The Ravens would hold the tiebreaker with two wins over the Steelers.

Then, the Steelers go to Cincinnati in two weeks. Like the Ravens, the Bengals are 5-2 and a half-game behind the Steelers in the division.

As liberating as a win over the Patriots is, it will ring hollow if the Steelers can't take care of business in the division and eventually have to navigate the wild-card route to the Super Bowl.

All that said, a win over the Patriots usually signals a deep run in the playoffs. Since 1995, every win over the Patriots has pointed the Steelers to at least the AFC championship game.

It's too early to tell if that will be the case again this year, but we do know that the Steelers now have a showcase victory to highlight their four-game winning streak, a streak in which they haven't been behind since trailing the Titans 3-0 in the first quarter three weeks ago. 

Prescription for winning  

What makes the Steelers' victory over a Brady-led team so uncanny is the fact that they did it by giving the pretty-boy quarterback exactly what he wants. Plenty of face time. That is, lots of shots of him on the sidelines with his helmet off. You beat the Patriots by keeping Brady off the field.

The Steelers gave the Patriots a taste of their own medicine (doesn't Belichick always look like he's swallowing bitter medicine?) by using the passing game essentially as their running game. The Steelers possessed the ball for 21 minutes, 13 seconds in the first half. Ben Roethlisberger completed 23 of the 32 passes he threw, leading the Steelers to a 17-10 halftime lead.

Roethlisberger threw to nine different receivers in the game (even Jerricho Cotchery caught his first pass as a Steeler). Antonio Brown caught nine of those passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. I thought the Steelers were going to need a punt or kickoff return from Brown to have any chance to win this game. But Brown's more than just a returner now. He's pretty much the Steelers' No. 2 receiver. For the second straight week, he's surpassed a career high for receptions in a game.

A common thread of the Patriots' success over the past decade has been their ability to take away their opponent's biggest strength. Mike Wallace had a reception of at least 40 yards in six straight games. The Patriots made damn sure that didn't happen Sunday. But Wallace still caught seven passes for 70 yards, showing he's a complete receiver.

Heath Miller also caught seven passes, including four for 55 yards on the game's opening drive, prompting enough baritone "Heeeeeaaaath!" rumblings in Western Pennsylvania to register on the Richter scale.

The Steelers' use of the tight end on that drive was a nice little game of "See, We Can Do That, Too." The Patriots gouged the Steelers' defense with their tight ends in last year's win at Heinz Field. 

Rob Gronkowski, who scored three touchdowns against the Steelers in that game, still caught seven passes for 94 yards, but the Steelers limited the damage by employing the Cavalry Defense. After the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder caught a pass, one Steeler would hold onto him and wait for teammates to get there and help bring him down. On one play, Troy Polamalu rode Gronkowski like a jockey until the cavalry arrived.

Patriots fans are going to say that Gronkowski should have had a touchdown when he caught a pass at the goal line with 4:15 left in the game. Yeah, it probably was a touchdown, but didn't Gronkowski do enough scoring during the Patriots' bye week?

After getting the ball to the 1 on that play, the Patriots had a dumb spell and managed the clock poorly before finally getting a touchdown with 2:35 left, narrowing the Steelers' lead to 23-17.

Turnover talk 

Yeah, it got a little hairy at the end, despite the Steelers' dominance in the game.

Why is that?

To answer that question, we have to have our weekly turnover talk.

Do we really have to do that again, you ask? The Steelers finally got that long-awaited win over the Patriots, can't we reward them by not pointing out their takeaway futility for one week?

No. Because the Steelers once again failed to force a turnover Sunday. The Patriots did get an interception, which put the ball on the Steelers' 8 and led to a touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 10-7 in the second quarter.

That means the Steelers lost the turnover battle. That's why their lead was a puny 17-10 at halftime despite all the good they did in the first half. That's why we couldn't be sure of a Steelers win until eight seconds remained in the game.

From the Broken Record Department, the Steelers are the only team in the history of the NFL with just three takeaways through eight games, according to profootballreference.com. At the season's midpoint, they're on pace for six takeaways in 2011. That would be just half of the 12 the Redskins had in 2006. That's the record for fewest takeaways in a 16-game season.

The Steelers join the 1983 Raiders (who won the Super Bowl), the 1971 49ers and the 1945 Lions in going 6-2 despite a turnover differential of minus-10 or worse.

Going the distance 

The only other time the Steelers beat Brady, they blindsided the Patriots with turnovers. After taking a 7-3 lead in that game in 2004, they strip-sacked Brady on the first play of New England's next possession and eventually scored to make it 14-3. Then on the first play of the Patriots' next drive, Deshea Townsend scored on a Pick 6, and it was 21-3 in the first quarter before the Patriots knew what hit them.

So instead of knocking out the Patriots with turnovers like they did seven years ago today, the Steelers went the distance with the Patriots Sunday. Without the knockout punch of a turnover, they stood toe-to-toe with them and outpunched them.

For a while there, though, it looked like the Patriots were going to find a new way to beat the Steelers. For all the Patriots' mastery over the Steelers before Sunday, they've never come from behind to beat them during the Brady Era.

Down six, the Patriots had the ball at their own 22 with 19 seconds left and no timeouts. Was Brady going to add a whole new dimension to our frustration with a miracle?

Thankfully, no.

On a play that crystallized the Steelers' stellar coverage of the Patriots' receivers, they rushed only three, but Brady found no one open. Brett Keisel, who already had his customary batted pass earlier in the game, knocked the ball loose. Polamalu punched the ball through the end zone for a safety. It might have been illegal, but that's for Spygate.

Speaking of people who get away with things, Ray Lewis and the Ravens come to town Sunday in a game even more important than this one.

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