By Art Martone
Funny game, football.
You can have just about as bad a day as it's possible to have -- like Rob Gronkowski did last Sunday in Cleveland -- and yet come back with three touchdown catches the following week.
You can allow the opposition to roll up 204 yards in only 17 plays and score three touchdowns -- in one quarter, no less -- and yet still win a crucial game thanks mainly to your defense.
You can get manhandled by a sub-.500 team one week and have to follow that seven days later with a game in one of the NFL's toughest venues -- on national television -- and yet bounce back with your biggest victory of the season.
Funny game, indeed.
And it's the New England Patriots who are laughing after Sunday night's 39-26 win over the Steelers that erased the bad taste of last week's wipeout in Cleveland and kept them in a tie for the AFC East lead and a tie for the best record in the NFL (7-2).
"Thiswas an easy game to get fired up for,'' said Logan Mankins, who saw a full game's worth of action in his second week back after Stephen Neal was sidelined because of a shoulder injury. "We didn't need any extra motivation, especially after last week.We had a whole week to think about how we played, and I think we playeda lot better than we did last week. We didn't want a repeat.''
There was no repeat, especially on defense. In fact, it was the defense that was the impressive piece of Sunday's puzzle, even though the offense scored the most points allowed by the Steelers at home since the Pats' 41-27 victory in the 2004 AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots took advantage of Pittsburgh's injury-riddled, makeshift offensive line and sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, allowing the Steelers only three points over the first three quarters as they built an insurmountable 23-3 lead. They shifted to a soft zone in the fourth quarter and Roethlisberger took full advantage with three long (and quick) touchdown drives, but New England's lead was never in serious jeopardy.
It was a far cry from the week before, when they were riddled by Browns rookie Colt McCoy.
"You have to have a short memory," said Patrick Chung, who led the team in tackles and who tipped a pass in the fourth quarter that was snared by James Sanders and returned for a touchdown. "Good play, bad play, it doesn't matter. Move on to the next one."
It was the offense that had to have a short memory in this one, because as good as the first half was defensively for the Patriots it was a case of self-destruction on the other side of the ball. As a result, a giant first-half statistical advantage -- 12-8 in first downs, 211-134 in net yards -- resulted in only a 10-3 New England edge at halftime.
"It was all self-inflicted," said wide receiver Wes Welker of the Pats' first-half sputters. "We had drops, penalties. I had one. We just can't have that."
The Pats scored on their first possession and were driving for another touchdown on their second when they made their initial mistake: A chop-block penalty on BenJarvus Green-Ellis negated a Tom Brady completion to Gronkowski that had moved the ball to the Steelers' 4. The penalty pushed it back to the Pittsburgh 27, and the Pats had to settle for a 31-yard Shayne Graham field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The Pats were trying to build on that 10-0 lead in the second quarter and had a second-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 35 when a false-start penalty on Welker pushed it back to the 40. The drive stalled there, and New England was forced to punt.
Then, when the Pats were in their two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter, an offensive pass-interference penalty on Gronkowski wiped out a completion that had the Pats inside the Steelers' 25. The Patriots had to punt again, and weren't able to build on their lead.
"There were some frustrating times," said Brady, who screamed at his teammates after one unsuccessful drive in an outburst that was recorded completely by NBC's cameras.
Still, they held that lead almost from the beginning, moving 70 yards on 8 plays the first time they touched the ball. Brady deftly directed a short-pass offense to first downs on four consecutive plays before hitting Gronkowski down the middle with a 19-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 advantage. It was the first touchdown Pittsburgh allowed in the first quarter all season.
The Pats tacked on three more points on Graham's first field goal on their next possession.
The young New England defense, meanwhile, had the Steelers offense in check most of the half, sacking Roethlisberger three times and holding him to 7 completions in 20 attempts. Pittsburgh was able to put together one drive in the second quarter, moving from its 20 to the Pats' 4. But the Steelers made their own mistakes -- namely, dropped passes in the end zone by Michael Wallace and Antwaan Randle El, albeit on contested plays by the Pats' secondary -- and had to settle for a 22-yard Jeff Reed field goal.
"For the most part, we played pretty competitively on defense until thelast quarter." said coach Bill Belichick.
New England put the game away in the third quarter. The Pats went 78 yards over 10 plays after taking the second-half kickoff and went ahead, 17-3, on a nine-yard pass from Brady to Gronkowski. Brady would later score on a three-yard quarterback sneak, capping an 80-play drive, and the Pats had a 23-3 lead heading into the final quarter.
The last 15 minutes degenerated into a scoring orgy, with the Pats almost matching Pittsburgh TD for TD. They answered a six-yard Roethlisberger TD pass to Emmanuel Sanders with the 36-yard interception return for a touchdown by Sanders; a 15-yard Roethlisberger-to-Wallace score with the third Brady-to-Gronkowski hookup of the game, this one of 26 yards; and a 34-yard Roethlisberger-to-Wallace TD with a 36-yard Graham field goal.
"It was a very complimentary game," said Belichick. "The offense, the defense, andthe kicking game. We had field position, we took advantage of it.Offense got good field position, we took advantage of it. It was a goodteam effort all the way around."
And when it was over, the Patriots had moved a game ahead of Pittsburgh in the conference standings, stayed tied with the Jets in the division, and pretty much erased all memories of the disaster in Cleveland last week.
Funny, isn't it?
Art Martone can be reached at email@example.com.