December 09, 2007
A Masterpiece Brings A January Bye
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- Forget about 13-0 and playoff positioning. Sunday night at Gillette Stadium was basically about two things. Beating the blitz. Making Anthony Smith eat his words.
Tom Brady took Smith's asinine midweek guarantee comments and used them to propel the Patriots towards perhaps their most significant victory this thus-far-historic season. Looking like a football version of James Levine out there (or Seiji Ozawa, for you old timers), with a football as his baton, Brady conducted the Patriot Symphony Orchestra in a rousing rendition of Belichick's 13th (win, not symphony), and the results were boffo. The 34-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers sent lots of messages to the league in general, and hopefully to one idiotic Pittsburgh free safety in particular.
If you will forgive all the classical music metaphors, you should understand that Brady's eventual conquering of the Steelers was a masterpiece in every sense of the word. There is really no other way to state how impeccable Brady's performance was. The second half of the game may have arguably been Brady's finest thirty minutes of football in his career, as he provided some of the best examples of how to beat a blitz with zero reliance on any sort of run attack. Dick LeBeau's defense came at Brady relentlessly all night long, but Brady eventually found several ways, and receivers, to beat the blitz and turn the game into a blowout.
The biggest subplot to all this is the Patriot reaction to Smith's midweek comments on guaranteeing a Steeler win. It generally went over like a ton of lead in Pittsburgh, as the veteran players knew better. As it turned out, Smith was burned badly on two touchdown throws and made zero impact plays in the game. The Gillette Stadium crowd was chanting "Guarantee! Guarantee!" at game's end, a fitting climax to what should be the nadir of Smith's brief and nondescript NFL career.
Laurence Maroney had only 18 yards on eight carries, which will no doubt engender more criticism from his detractors as to how unproductive he is. The real truth is that the Patriots don't use him much because they really don't have to. Other than a nifty ten-yard run in the first quarter where he dragged about six tacklers along with him for most of the distance, Maroney was a total non-factor. Yet the Patriots still won by three touchdowns and outgained Pittsburgh as a team, 421 total yards to 349.
Brady was the master of all masters, completing 32 of 46 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns. He now has 45 for the season, four behind Peyton Manning's record with three games left to play. Brady's passer rating for the game was 125.2. But his surgical dissection of the Steeler defense in the second half should be made into a training film on how to beat the blitz.
Leading at the half, 17-13, the Patriots went right to work on their first offensive possession. Brady hit Randy Moss on a quick slant pass for 22 yards, then hit Donte Stallworth and Kyle Brady on quick hitches for nine and seven yards respectively. The Patriots then pulled off one of the goofiest flea-flicker plays in recent memory, as Brady threw a backwards pass to Moss, which he dropped, then threw another backwards pass back to Brady. Brady wound up and fired a deep ball to a wide-open Jabar Gaffney for a 56-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-13 Patriots. The three quick passes set up this deceptive play where the defense completely failed to account for Gaffney.
The defensive back who was caught out of position? Smith.
On their next possession, the key word again was "quick". Quick right passes to Ben Watson and Moss begat a 13-yard pass to Gaffney on a quick screen after a play fake to Maroney. Wes Welker caught to quick tosses in the flat, and eventually hauled a quick slant pass for two yards and a touchdown to make it 31-13 just before the end of the third quarter. Brady was hitting quick slants and hot reads left and right, but the Steelers kept blitzing and were powerless to stop anything.
After a dynamite goal-line stand where Hines Ward was stopped on an end around at the one-yard line on fourth down, the Patriots nearly went on a 99-yard scoring drive. All 13 plays of the drive were passes, the first nine of which were completed, the first six of those nine to Welker. All of Welker's catches were of the quick slant variety, and all to the right side. Kevin Faulk then caught a quick hitch to the left, then Gaffney took two quick tosses to get the Patriots to the Pittsburgh 22. Randy Moss caught a quick slant pass for 12 yards, but the Patriots could get no closer as Brady misfired on the next three passes. The 28-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski completed the scoring.
Back now to Smith. In the first quarter, on the Patriots' second offensive possession, Moss caught a four-yard scoring toss, and Brady started screaming at Smith (and got bumped by Smith and James Harrison in the process). The next time the Patriots had the ball, it took only one play to make Smith look like a total dupe. At their own 37, Brady executed a terrific play fake to Maroney which Smith went for, hook, line and sinker. He let Moss run right by him, and Ike Taylor had no chance to cover for Smith's mistake. Brady hit the wide-open Moss for 63 yards and a touchdown. At this point, Smith had become a complete laughingstock, though the Patriots would not put the Steelers away until the second half.
With the win, the Patriots clinched a first round bye. The last three times the Patriots had a first round bye, they won the Super Bowl. The next Patriot win or Indianapolis loss clinches home field throughout the playoffs for the Patriots. The Patriots will be prohibitive favorites in each of their next two games, home grudge matches against lousy division rivals (Jets, Miami). These games could be trap games of the highest order, but thanks to Eric Mangini's fink job in Week 1 and Don Shula's asterisk charges, the Patriots will want to kill both opponents. A perfect regular season would then come down to a Saturday night season finale at the Giants.
As for the Steelers, they could very well see the Patriots again in the playoffs. If they do, the Patriots may still remember Smith's remarks.
Then again, they might not even remember Smith, unless he opens his big mouth again. Chances are his teammates will put duct tape on his big mouth for the remainder of the season.
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