By Mary Paoletti
PITTSBURGH -- What's in a bounceback?
What does it take for a team to turn its game around 180 degrees in a week?
"It's the NFL,'' Bill Belichick said. "You never know. If you knew what was going to happen in this league you'd make a lot of money.''
Belichick wasn't being cryptic after his team's 39-26 win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was just being honest.
"I thought we just had a good, consistent offensive performance,'' he said. "We ran the ball competitively, made them worry about it. Did a good job in the passing game, got good yards after the catch. Of course the red area is huge like it always is.
"Give the players credit. They played well, they played hard; they blocked, they got open, they threw it, they caught it. They did a good job."
It wasn't a flawless game for the Patriots. But that wasn't the point. It was just so markedly better, so resolutely executed from the kickoff, that it was surprising. And it really was as simple as Belichick said.
And they tackled, and they sacked. The fact that Jerod Mayo leads the NFL in tackles by more than 10 isn't necessarily a good thing. The Patriots linebacker has been capitalizing on all the opportunities presented to him and then some, garbage-collecting on the guys his teammates miss. Mayo had nine tackles against the Steelers on Sunday, a tie with cornerback Devin McCourty for second-highest on the team.
He couldn't have been happier.
"It's a great feeling knowing the guys are out there trying to make all the plays,'' he said of sharing the effort.
Patrick Chung's 10 tackles held the top spot.
After missing two games with a knee injury, Chung reentered the lineup with authority. His field awareness was on point when he set up a deflection of a fourth-quarter Ben Roethlisberger pass. The tipped ball was snared by teammate James Sanders, who returned the interception for a touchdown.
Again, their play wasn't perfect.
In the second quarter, McCourty got shoved inside on the run blitz, allowing Steelers' leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall to break containment. Mendenhall then faked Chung out of his cleats for a 34-yard gain and a momentum shift in Pittsburgh's favor.
But the defense didn't have to be perfect to be better.
Limiting Mendenhall to 50 yards after letting Cleveland's Peyton Hillis abuse them was huge. Posting five sacks on large-target Roethlisberger was astounding. It was the Steeler defense -- the best in the NFL, a Dick LeBeau-led blitzing machine -- that was supposed to be suffocating.
Instead, the Patriots 'D' held Pittsburgh to three points through three quarters (Cleveland, remember, scored 24 in the first three quarters.) By the time the choke hold loosened in the fourth, New England had an insurmountable lead.
"We just wanted this game to hurry up and get here," said Vince Wilfork. "We got off to a good start this week in practice, and it showed today. I think we prepared well this week."
THEY GOT OPEN
Wes Welker finally found some space on Sunday.
The wideout, and favorite option of Tom Brady's, has been quiet since the trade of Randy Moss. In Cleveland he had a pedestrian four catches for 36 yards -- not the kind of productivity expected from the guy who led the league last year in receptions. Eight receptions and 89 yards against the Steelers defense was a move in the right direction, even if Welker said it "should have been more" in the postgame.
The point of such progress isn't restoring receivers back to career-high heights. It's enough right now to simply pull fading wideouts back into service. Like Brandon Tate, the guy expected to pick up Moss' mantle as The Downfield Threat. The Browns limited Tate to 1 catch and 12 yards a week ago. Sunday night on second-and-10 at the New England 20, Brady reintroduced Tate to the offense with a 45-yard frozen rope on the post.
Deion Branch discussed how huge it was for the receiving corps to be a better bet for Brady.
"It's been frustrating,'' he said of the struggles. "There've been some things we haven't hit. You know we'll get to it. We never panic, that's the most important thing.''
Branch was the owner of just three catches between Cleveland and Minnesota. He more than doubled that total Sunday (7, for 71 yards).
"It was important, period, to the whole team. Important to all of us,'' Branch said. "This week in practice was totally different. This week was totally different."
THEY THREW IT
Tom is never terrible, he just hasn't been very Brady lately.
Last week's first drive? New England's QB went 1-for-6 with a sack. Pittsburgh was not so lucky. Until TB came to town, the Steelers had not allowed a single first-quarter touchdown, and only eight TDs through the air, all year. Brady opened with a 4-for-5, 52-yard touchdown drive. It was the first time New England scored on its first drive since Week 3 against Buffalo.
That tenacity that set the tone for the day. Brady notched his first 300-plus yard game of the season and he did it through force of will. Every minute, the field general was screaming orders or encouragement at his troops.
"I was exhausted," Brady said. "There's only one way to play. It's an emotional game. Part of playing quarterback is trying to make sure everyone is always into it. There's a certain level of concentration and focus that you need on the road. The crowd gets noisy."
THEY CAUGHT IT
For the majority, anyway. There were definitely some painful moments.
"It was all self-inflicted,'' Welker said. "We had drops, I had one and we just cant have that."
What was noteworthy wasn't who was dropping the ball, but who wasn't. Rookie Rob Gronkowski had made a mess of his Week 9 chances. His "productivity" amounted to a fumble on the Browns' goal line, a special teams blunder-to-turnover and a complete lack of chemistry with his quarterback.So the Steelers had the misfortune of facing the oversized tight end when he had something to prove.
"He's a great player," Welker said. "It's great to see a guy really bounce back from something like that and do such a great job. He plays hard and he works hard. I'm glad it really paid off for him. He had a better week."
Better? Just slightly. Gronkowski reeled in a career-high three touchdown catches and 72 receiving yards. Just one more piece in the puzzle that amounted to a solid game -- a beautiful bounceback -- for Belichick.
"This week was definitely better," the coach said before pausing a beat. He continued with a tight little smirk, "That wouldn't take much."
You wonder if another change of the wind could bring the Pats back to Cleveland-status. Was the Steelers win a special effort? Did everything come together on the right night at the right time, never to be replicated? Or did it just take time for things to click and potential be made reality?
Whatever the case, nobody in New England's locker room was oozing overconfidence. Maybe therein is the difference between 6-1 and 6-2, where learning you aren't invincible is inevitable but feeling you might be actually flawed is frightening.
No time to dwell, though. The wins have to be filed away just like the losses.
"It feels good, but you gotta move on,'' Chung shrugged. "You gotta move on quick, too. We got a big game next week" -- the Colts come to Foxboro -- "so this one's over now."
Mary Paoletti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti