FOXBORO -- The days become shorter, the temperature starts to drop, and the game starts to change. Football in November and December changes dramatically -- the intensity starts to ramp up, and the sense of urgency begins to increase.
As quarterback Tom Brady said last Wednesday, this is the time of the season when the good teams start to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. If you want to be considered the sort of team that has a chance to play deep into January, you start taking your first real steps toward that goal this time of the year.
To that end, the 2013 Patriots took a big step Sunday afternoon against the Steelers -- with several members of the Red Sox looking on from a luxury box after a pregame ceremony, New England put an astounding 55-31 hurting on the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. The 55 points represent the highest point total EVER hung on a Pittsburgh team. Tom Brady was 23-for-33 for 432 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. Three pass catchers topped 100 yards receiving, as Rob Gronkowski (143 yards), Aaron Dobson (130 yards) and Danny Amendola (122) all passed the century mark. Stevan Ridley rushed for a season-high 115 yards. And the defense sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and picked off a pair of his passes.
The most complete performance of the season by the Patriots left Bill Belichick at a loss for words.
“I’m not sure exactly how it all happened today,” shrugged the coach. “Maybe we got our inspiration from the Red Sox -- I’m not sure.”
What happened was that the Patriots took a singular step in the right direction at the right time of the year, particularly on offense. There was finally some sense of what the passing game might be capable of when everyone is healthy: With Gronkowski, Amendola, Dobson and Ridley all on the field at the same time for an extended stretch -- against the second-best pass defense in the league -- New England had no problem moving the ball up and down the field all day: Brady had his third-highest outing EVER when it came to passing yardage. The Patriots had three receivers top 100 yards for the first time in franchise history. And over their last 12 possessions, the Patriots failed to score on only two of them, with the final possession of the game ending on a kneeldown.
“It’s amazing,” said running back LeGarrette Blount. “Putting up 55 points against a team like the Steelers ... I don’t know if anyone has ever done that. That’s just a sign of how good we can be.”
Brady acknowledged that it was nice, but at the same time, he provided some perspective.
“Yeah, but … I mean, it’s one game,” said the quarterback, who played the sobering role of Buzz Killington with the media. “You play once a week and it was a good week of practice and it showed in the game. We have a bye week and then we play Carolina. So this really doesn’t matter much going forward, or the score. I think the improvement of our team and the confidence, that’s the most important thing.
“I think there were some elements of our game that we’re starting to show,” he admitted. “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. There were a lot of guys that played really well and that’s what it’s going take, I think, as the season goes.
“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.”
Ultimately, all of what has transpired to this point in the season is all prologue for the next step in the process, which will start after the bye: getting yourself into position to be in position to make a run. To that end, the Patriots have done as well as could be expected. They’ll go into the bye at 7-2, and firmly in control of their division. They’re only one of four teams in the AFC with two losses or less. And if the playoffs began today, they’d have a first-round bye and home field for a divisional playoff game.
“We’d love to be 9-0, but 7-2 is not too shabby,” said Logan Mankins. “A lot of teams would love to be 7-2, and I think tonight it was great for the offense to get rolling like we did tonight. That can only get us going in the right direction and we’ve got the bye week to look at ourselves really hard here, and then we’ll move on to Carolina.”
It’s a win. One resume-building victory the likes of which we’ve never seen against a proud team like the Steelers. But still, it was one win. It’s a part of the process, a positive step in the journey that will ideally end with them playing deep into January and maybe beyond. In the end, where that journey ends up taking the 2013 Patriots is still to be determined.
But after Sunday, it’s clear that this team is ready to keep taking those important steps forward.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
TOM BRADY LOVES PLAYING THE STEELERS
The quarterback had another terrific performance against Pittsburgh, posting one of the best outings of the last year-plus Sunday when he went 23-for-33 for 432 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a season-high passer rating of 151.8. Of course, it’s not a surprise -- he came into the game with a 6-2 mark in his career against the Steelers (including the postseason), and a completion percentage of 68.1 percent in regular-season games against the Steelers, second-best of any team he had faced at least five times. In addition, his 14:3 touchdown:interception ratio is the second-best of any team he has faced at least five times over the course of his career. The Steelers have also been victims of some vintage Brady performances in the past -- his 30-for-43 for 350 yards with three touchdowns and no picks in a Nov. 14, 2010 win was one of the best regular-season performances of the last few years. But given the circumstances, Sunday’s game might have beaten that out.
ROB GRONKOWSKI CHANGES EVERYTHING
When the big tight end is operating at 100 percent, he’s awful tough to stop. And while there’s no way of knowing if he’s truly back to full health, he looked positively overwhelming at times against the Steelers: he had nine catches on 10 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown. He spent a large portion of the game working in the hip pocket of right tackle Marcus Cannon, helping keep him off Brady’s back. But he also did more than his share as a pass catcher -- he was particularly effective helping move the chains early, coming away with a 34-yard catch and a 27-yard pickup before the end of the half. (In all, he accounted for 110 of Brady’s first 161 yards through the air.) When he wasn’t picking up sizable chunks of yardage, he was demanding the sort of attention that opened things up for his teammates -- it wasn’t a coincidence that Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson had their best performances in a New England uniform on Sunday. The appearance of Gronkowski on the field alongside Amendola, Edelman, Dobson and Ridley provided Patriots fans with a true sense of the capabilities of the offense going forward into the second half of the season.
INJURIES ARE GOING TO BE A PROBLEM
Things were already a little dicey -- the loss of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer will force the Patriots to rely heavily on their depth over the second half of the season. But New England suffered a few more injuries Sunday against the Steelers; linebacker Rob Ninkovich went down with a foot injury in the second half. (There’s a belief he could have finished the game if need be, as he was seen walking around on the sidelines appearing to test it out several times in the second half. He wasn’t seen in a walking boot after the game.) Safety Steve Gregory suffered a second-half thumb injury, and did not return to action. (It was later reported he was in a cast, and would be getting further tests on the thumb on Monday.) And wide receiver Austin Collie went down with a knee injury in the first half and did not return for the second half. The bye will give several of the Patriots an opportunity to heal up and get right physically -- including cornerback Aqib Talib, who missed his third game Sunday with a hip issue -- but there’s zero margin for error when it comes to health over the second half of the season.
FEW OPPONENTS BEDEVIL THE PATS LIKE JERRICHO COTCHERY
Patriots fans were already well acquainted with Cotchery from his time with the Jets, as the North Carolina State product made a habit of torturing New England on a semi-regular basis when he was a part of the New York offense. On Sunday, Cotchery picked up where he left off -- he had seven catches (on eight targets) for 96 yards and three second-half touchdowns to account for all of the Steelers’ scoring chances in the third and fourth quarters. The best of the three was probably the first touchdown catch, as he hauled in a 20-yard reception from Roethlisberger down the middle to bring Pittsburgh to within a touchdown with just over 11 minutes left in the third. (Although the second one that came at the expense of rookie corner Logan Ryan was pretty impressive near the corner of the end zone -- that score tied the game at 24.)
GOOD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU GIVE STEVAN RIDLEY THE BALL
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: Ridley fumbled the ball in the first half when he had it ripped out of his hands by Troy Polamalu. But instead of nailing him to the bench as he had done in the past, Belichick sent him back out onto the field for the next series, and the back responded in kind. (Belichick was asked about the turnover, and did acknowledge that there’s a sizable difference between a fumble and having a ball knocked away. “Sometimes turnovers are a result of real good defensive plays. Sometimes they’re a result of sloppy plays offensively,” Belichick said. “I would, unfortunately, have to credit that one to Polamalu. He made a great play and that’s one of those things you have to live with.”) Ridley ended up running for 115 yards on 26 carries, and tacked on a pair of touchdowns for good measure -- he was at his best in the second half, when he had 14 carries, 76 yards and a touchdown. On a 61-yard New England drive midway through the fourth quarter, Ridley accounted for 31 yards on his own over the course of the series, which culminated with a 5-yard run off left guard and into the end zone.
AARON DOBSON IS FEELING BETTER ABOUT HIMSELF
The rookie receiver has shown steady improvements over the last month, and appeared to continue to build on that with his effort Sunday against the Steelers. Against the second-best pass defense in the league, Dobson had an excellent afternoon with five catches (on nine targets) for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He was fairly steady across the board -- there was at least one drop, by my count -- but showed some nifty moves, and even drew a pass interference penalty for good measure. Dobson’s most impressive reception of the year came in the fourth quarter, an 81-yard thunderbolt where Brady hit him in stride down the New England sideline, one of the nicest connections of the year for the quarterback and the receiver. Through his first eight games of the season (he was sidelined for Week 1), Dobson has 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns. For comparisons sake, after Week 9 as a rookie, Deion Branch had 38 catches for 417 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad numbers.
DANNY AMENDOLA MIGHT BE SOME SORT OF WIZARD
On his first two catches, the receiver was so wide open, it was amazing. On the first play, the receiver lined up in the slot and just took off down the field, and the quarterback hit him in stride just inside the 10-yard line. There was no one within roughly 10 yards of him when he made the catch, which went for 34 yards and Amendola’s first touchdown as a member of the Patriots. (At first glance, it appeared to be a great look off job by Brady on Polamalu, who was headed to the other side of the field but didn’t get back to Amendola until it was too late.) Amendola had another Houdini moment on a 57-yard pass play toward the end of the first half, a connection that set up a 20-yard field goal with 3:51 left in the second quarter and again looked like a colossal breakdown in Pittsburgh’s coverage scheme. The receiver ended up with four catches for 122 yards and a touchdown -- easily his most productive performance as a member of the Patriots.
THE DEFENSIVE FRONT IS CAPABLE OF PUTTING PRESSURE ON THE PASSER
While sacks are still overrated and don’t always tell the whole story when you’re talking about getting pressure on a quarterback, taken as a single part of a larger picture, it’s clear the Patriots have managed to find a formula for getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. (For what it’s worth, they’ve also faced two straight subpar offensive lines.) Sunday marked the second consecutive game where the Patriots had at least five sacks and the third straight game with at least four sacks. Chandler Jones had a pair, while Dane Fletcher, Rob Ninkovich (who had a strip sack in the first quarter) and Andre Carter (his first since returning to the Patriots) all had one each. For Jones, it was his third two-sack game of the 2013 season -- he now has 8.5 sacks for the year.
BILL BELICHICK WAS REALLY HAPPY WITH THE EFFORT
The Patriots now head into the bye week on an extraordinarily positive note, and as a result, the team has been granted some extra time off. Belichick gave the Patriots an unprecedented six days leave over the bye week: players were given a “Victory Monday” off as a result of their win. They’ll return to the facility on Tuesday, but were given Wednesday through the following Monday off because of the bye week. With the latest CBA, players get a mandated four-day break, but the dominant win, combined with the health of the team, likely meant for a fifth day. And it’s likely the sixth day is an attempt to try and get the team on a Monday-to-Monday schedule in anticipation of their next contest, a Monday Night matchup with the Panthers in Carolina on Nov. 18.