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.