By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 09, 2002

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FOXBOROUGH -- Trash talk is the lifeblood in the NFL.

The Patriots can thank this wonderful trademark of the truculent as being perhaps the biggest keys in one of the sweetest wins in team history. While the Super Bowl win was the most important, their 30-14 conquest of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night was without a doubt a tasty, delicious win for a team who had to suffer through an offseason filled with skepticism, disrespect and disbelief.

After christening their new stadium, the palace named Gillette was treated to one of the best "in your face" games in recent memory. The Patriots answered dozens of questions in the 2002 season opener, but the biggest question that got answered in the affirmative may have been "Are the Patriots really for real?" If the Steelers don't strike back with a resounding "yea", then they are really more delusional than we could ever give them credit for.

It was pretty much like a continuation of the Super Bowl, except better. Everything that the Patriots had to do, they did. They forced five Steeler turnovers, including three interceptions of Kordell Stewart. They shook off a sluggish offensive first half by scoring on four of their first five second half drives. They came out with exactly the attitude they needed to take care of a team that was still haunted with the memory of a January game they still feel they should have won.

What else can you say except "sweet"? For importance, you still look to the Big Show. But tonight's win will go down easy, like a yummy hot fudge sundae.

Tom Brady lowballed the Steelers for most of the first half. Yet he somehow managed to finish with 294 yards passing on 29 of 43 completions. His passer rating was 110. John Madden helped validate Yours Truly's opinion of Brady when he dared mention the words "Joe Montana" when asked who Brady reminds him of.

The Patriots won this game despite going through one stretch of 25 straight pass plays. They attempted no runs in the second quarter. They used a hurry-up offense with empty backfields and sliced and diced the Steeler secondary when they ran out of gas in the third quarter. The Steelers knew what was coming against them, and still could not stop it.

The most important question (as opposed to the most obvious) to come out of this game was "Who is the better team, the Patriots or the Steelers?" The Patriots made a joke of that query, and made the Steelers eat perhaps the most crow in the history of mankind. After spending all offseason bragging about what a fluke the Patriots are, and with Stewart's postgame declaration in January that "Sometimes the best team doesn't win" ringing in everyone's ears, the Patriots shut up a lot of people in western Pennsylvania with a truly dominating performance against the 2001 AFC runners-up.

This game also further underscored what a non-big game quarterback Stewart is. The game was barely three minutes old, and Stewart had already thrown two picks. On their first offensive possession, Stewart overthrew Terance Mathis, and Terrell Buckley made the interception. Then on the first play of the next possession, Stewart threw a slant pass right into the hands of a diving Mike Vrabel. Stewart had three picks in all, as Buckley also snatched one in the third quarter. These three picks led to ten New England points. And on all of them, they were poorly thrown balls.

Buckley? Two picks? Hmmm. And the Patriots cut this guy loose after the Super Bowl?

The Patriots did not play a very good second quarter. They did manage to keep the Steelers off the board, but the Patriots allowed Stewart to get a rhythm and find Hines Ward (8 catches, 90 yards) and Antwaan Randle El (6 catches, 87 yards) often. The Steelers managed to drive from their 34 to the Patriot 1 thanks largely to a questionable pass interference call in the end zone on Ty Law against Ward. But 20 yards in penalties turned first and goal at the one into a 39-yard field goal attempt, which Todd Peterson hooked wide left (ah, for the good old days of Kris Brown).

Another thing that hurt the Steelers was penalties. The Steelers were flagged 13 times for 112 yards. A defining moment in the game was on the aforementioned drive which ended up in a missed field goal. One of the penalties that drove the Steelers back was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who shoved Lawyer Milloy after making a tackle. Even Bill Cowher got flagged for a similar offense, after a fumble recovery by Roman Phifer for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was wiped out on a replay reversal (Willie McGinest sacked Stewart and was down on contact before the ball popped out and Phifer ran to the house). Cowher ran out and screamed at referee Tony Corrente, not thinking that all he had to do was to throw a red flag.

The Patriots led at the half, 10-7, then completely took over the game in the second half. They finally clicked on offense, and the defense pounded the Steelers into submission. In what became a carbon copy of the Carolina game a few weeks back, Brady suddenly caught fire and went nuts with long gains and touchdowns despite needing 20 or more yards for a first down on two different occasions.

On the first drive, Kimo von Oelhoffen sacked Brady for an 11-yard loss. Faced with second and 21, Brady then hit Cam Cleeland for eight yards, found David Patten on a deep right sideline pattern for 37 yards, then hit a wide open Donald Hayes in the left flat for 40 yards and a score. On that play, rookie Deion Branch threw the key block that sprung Hayes.

Next drive. After a Jerome Bettis fumble, Brady drives the Patriots from the Steeler 49 to the Steeler 25. Mike Compton picks up a holding call, so it's now first and 20. Brady then hits Christian Fauria for 8 yards, Cleeland for 5 yards, then finds Branch in the right flat. He dekes out Deshea Townsend (who received a stiff lecture from Cowher tonight) and scampers 22 yards for a touchdown.

By now it was 24-7 Patriots, and they spent the rest of the evening playing conservative and not making mistakes. The only Patriot turnover was a harmless Smith fumble in the fourth quarter. They managed two more Adam Vinatieri field goals, and only a late touchdown by Stewart from one yard out took this one out of the "total embarrassment" category.

An encouraging sign from this game was the tight end play. Cleeland caught six passes for 40 yards, and Fauria scored the first touchdown in the opening stanza on a four-yard toss from Brady. This was a target area for Bill Belichick in the offseason. It remains to be seen what Daniel Graham will do for the Patriots this year, as he had no receptions and ran the wrong way on an end zone route early in the game.

But there is no question now who is the better team. Steeler Nation will hate this evening perhaps worse than that glorious January afternoon. This was their team's moment to make a statement, but instead of making a statement they totally choked and retched. In the end, it was the Patriots who made the statement, loud and clear for the whole NFL to hear.

And you can bet that this is the last time the Patriots will be a home dog in a great while. The Patriots were the ones who reminded everyone outside of the great northeast who really rules the NFL.

Next up on Smack Talk '02: Curtis Martin, and his continued profession of hatred for the Patriots. Patriot Nation encourages this guy to flap his yap this week all he wants. Bring on the smack. Watch the Patriots use it to help them win.

All we know is that Stewart, Wayne Gandy, Ward, Lee Flowers and their mates will shut the heck up. They'll never say it out loud, but they know darn well right now who rules this league. And it isn't them.

They know now. Boy, do they know now.


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