Sunday, December 9, 2007

Patriots Look To Sweep Schedule

Patriots have been the team to beat since quarterback Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in a five-minute span in the fourth quarter of last month’s 24-20 victory over defending Super Bowl champions, the Indianapolis Colts. Already they are being compared to the Miami Dolphins team of 1972, which went through the season unbeaten. Having reached 12-0, the Patriots face their stiffest challenge to remaining unbeaten in the regular season when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers today at Foxborough.

The problem is that nobody loves them and many people would delight in their demise. Although Patriots coach Bill Belichick is respected for winning three Super Bowls in the space of four years this decade, his reputation was besmirched this season by the ‘Spygate’ scandal when a Patriots video assistant was caught by NFL (National Football League) security filming the New York Jets’ defensive signals. This flagrant violation of the rules resulted in Belichick being fined $500,000, the largest ever imposed on a coach in American football’s 87-year history and the maximum under NFL rules.

The Patriots were also fined $250,000 and will forfeit their first-round pick in the 2008 draft.

“The Spygate thing has diminished what they’ve accomplished,” declared Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Dolphins, who led his team to their unbeaten 17-0 record in 1972. “You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They’ve got it and I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds’s home run record. It will be noted that the Patriots were fined and a No 1 draft choice was taken away during their year of accomplishment.”

Meanwhile, the Steelers are determined to give the Patriots a run for their money today. “We’re going to win. I can guarantee a win,” Steelers safety Anthony Smith said on Monday, which aggravated rookie head coach Mike Tomlin. Linebacker James Farrior felt compelled to caution that Smith has not been in the NFL for long and may not have realised the impact his words could carry. “He better keep his mouth shut,” Farrior suggested, for when it comes to making guarantees, Smith is no Joe Namath.

But the Steelers have the best defence in the NFL, and their optimism has been strengthened by the prospect that the Patriots are no longer dominating as they did when winning their opening 10 games by an average of 25.4 points. New England were heavy favourites in their previous two games over Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens but in each game they were taken to the brink of defeat before prevailing by scores of 31-28 and 27-24 respectively. “People are talking about how they appear to be beatable,” Steelers coach Tomlin reflected. “The reality is that they display their greatness. They find ways to finish games out and win, regardless of how they begin or how they develop.”

Brady, who has completed 70.2% of his passes (302 of 430) for 3,696 passing yards, is just eight touchdown passes shy of equalling the record set in 2004 by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, having thrown 41. Having been sacked only 16 times through 12 games, his protection is exemplary. The Patriots have averaged 39.1 points per game through their first dozen games, leaving them on course to break the record of 38.8 points set by the LA Rams in 1950. The Steelers play more of a running game and, in Willie Parker, they possess the American Football Conference’s leader in rushing yards. If they are unable to overcome the Patriots, the question will be asked, “Can anybody?” Neither the New York Jets (3-9) nor the Miami Dolphins (0-12) will be capable of making much of a dent in coming weeks, which would leave only the New York Giants (8-4) on the final day at Giants Stadium capable of inflicting a blemish on the Patriots’ regular season record.

Steelers Sit Polamalu Against Patriots

Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu sat out his third consecutive game, missing the Steelers' matchup with the New England Patriots on Sunday with a sprained knee.

A Pro Bowl selection the past three years, Polamalu injured the knee Nov. 18 against the New York Jets. He aggravated the injury Wednesday and missed practice Thursday and Friday.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who worked out on a sprained right ankle on Friday, was active. Other Steelers inactives: receiver Willie Reid, running back Gary Russell, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and offensive linemen Marvin Philip, Darnell Stapleton and Trai Essex.

The Patriots listed as inactive receiver Troy Brown, defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith, offensive linemen Stephen Neal and Wesley Britt, defensive backs Eddie Jackson and Rashad Baker and linebacker Chad Brown.

No. 13 easier than 11 and 12 for Patriots

When Bill Belichick finds a weakness in an opponent, he exploits it, exploits it, exploits it ...

Which is as good a way as any to explain why his New England Patriots are 13-0, three victories away from a perfect regular season and back in the form they showed before they stumbled a bit in their past two games.

In this case, the Pittsburgh Steelers' weakness in the Patriots' 34-13 win Sunday was that, for most of the second half, they were missing three of the four guys who started the season in the secondary. So the Patriots, as usual, eschewed conventional wisdom and played as if it were a touch football game on a sandlot, simply throwing down the field - in at least one case with a play that came right off the sandlot.

"We thought we had the matchups there," Belichick said when asked why the Patriots went into the final three minutes of the game without having called a run in the second half. Or very many in the first half, although they did manage to run four times before intermission.

One of the hoariest chestnuts in the coaches' lexicon is "balanced attack." But Belichick doesn't believe in hoary chestnuts, so New England won a game in which it ran for 22 yards and passed for 399.

It hasn't happened yet this season, but you can bet if Belichick found the opposite kind of matchup, the Patriots might beat someone by rushing for 399 and passing for 22.

The most blatant example of the Patriots' strategy came early in the fourth quarter after they stopped the Steelers on a fourth-down play at the New England 1. Conventional wisdom is that in those situations, especially with a 31-13 lead, a team muscles its way out, if nothing else getting enough room for its punter to put the opposition back on the other side of midfield and to use up time.

Not Belichick.

With the ball back there on the 1 against a team that was statistically the stingiest defence in the NFL, he had Tom Brady throw. And throw. And throw.

Specifically, he threw to Wes Welker, who is listed at five-foot-nine but is closer to five-six or five-seven. First completion was for 22 yards to the 23, then for 11, then for 7, then for 15 to the Pittsburgh 44, then for 8 to the Pittsburgh 36.

"I kept thinking, 'Hey, Wes has enough. Throw it to someone else,' " said Randy Moss, who got his yardage in larger chunks: seven catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns.

If Moss had said that to Belichick, the coach would have replied "Why?"

Yes, the Patriots have superior players. But they also have a coach who simply does what works, over and over until the other guys figure out a way to stop it. In this case, why not exploit a secondary without starting safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark and then without cornerback Deshea Townsend, who went out in the third quarter?

He also doesn't mind gadgets like the one that broke open this game: a long, cross-field lateral to Moss, who dropped the ball, picked it up, and threw it back across the field to Brady. The star quarterback then threw it 63 yards to Jabar Gaffney for a touchdown. That was the first play of New England's first possession of the second half and it turned a 17-13 lead into 24-13.

And no, Moss' drop wasn't designed. Even the dour Belichick smiled when he heard someone ask if it was.

Off this game, the Patriots seem back on track.

Pittsburgh is 9-4 and one game ahead of Cleveland in the AFC North. It likely will be seeded third in the conference playoffs and is certainly a better team than the Ravens and Eagles, who came within three points of New England in the Pats' last two games.

The party line is still game to game in New England.

"I just want to be 14-0," Brady said when asked if he was thinking about an unbeaten season.

But subtly, the players are thinking ahead.

"This is the point in the year when we're going to have to start playing our best football," offensive tackle Matt Light said. "I don't think anyone can say we've been doing that the past couple of weeks. It's good to be back on track."

Yes, for two weeks, the Patriots looked beatable. No longer, in part because their coach eschews conventional wisdom.