Brady consistent in search for improvement

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Brady consistent in search for improvement

There's something you have to understand about Tom Brady: The man plays for perfection.

"I thought it was okay."

This, the reaction to his own performance in New England's 38-20 win over the Eagles. Brady completed 24 of 34 passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns and a 134.6 quarterback rating.

Yeah. That's all right.

Of course, the Patriots were supposed to win this game. Philadelphia, missing its 100 million Michael Vick, was led by backup QB Vince Young for the second straight week. No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin was out with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was active but hampered by a knee injury. Despite the league's best rush, it still doesn't exactly add up to a Dream Team.

So where was the worry?

New England -- Brady in particular -- has been starting slowly of late. There was fear that if the Eagles came out firing, the Patriots could get in too deep a hole to climb out of. And it almost happened that way.

It took Philadelphia two minutes and 17 seconds to put seven points on the board. Brady's answering drive -- leaning heavily on BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- ended on a punt. It was the fourth time the Patriots booted on their opening drive in their last five games. Eyebrows raised after the Eagles tacked on three more points.

But Brady stayed cool.

"There was a ton of football to play," he said. "Even their first touchdown drive was probably two-and-a-half minutes, it wasn't like it was an eight-minute drive, so there was a ton of football left."

New England "stemmed the tide."

BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored the team's first two touchdowns, on four- and one-yard runs. It was the first time he reached the end zone since the Patriots' October 9 game against the Jets. And with the revival of the ground game came resurrection for Patriots' play action.

Guys found gaps, they got open. Brady had options and the offense was clicking.

"I thought we ran the ball pretty effectively. That first drive I thought we did a good job running it . . . we just kind of sputtered out. We didn't make some plays in the passing game. I thought we played with a little power today. We ran the ball to really balance out the passing game, but there's plenty of yards that we left out there, too."

His debriefing doesn't match up with the stat sheet.

Deion Branch finished with 125 receiving yards. It was his best performance since Week 2 against San Diego (before Philip Rivers and San Diego spiraled into the abyss). In fact, Branch's 63-yard reception broke the game open for the Patriots.

Branch had a comeback route. As he ran, Brady scrambled. Branch stepped up then wheeled inside -- the defensive back lost him. Brady jammed it inside to Branch, who took off, cut back at around the 15, and dove headfirst to the 1.

Any momentum Philadelphia had was halted after the ensuing Patriots touchdown; after Young's interception on the following play, it was slaughtered. Yet Brady wasn't content. On the next New England drive, he started bawling about a missed third-down connection to Wes Welker. The string of sideline expletives he fired off after kicker Stephen Gotskowski's missed the 39-yard field goal attempt were as sincere as they were ugly.

"We want to score touchdowns every time we step out on there on the field," Welker said in the post-game. "I'd rather Brady be that way than, 'Aw, shucks.' "

No wonder they work so well together.

Welker had eight catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski caught his 11th touchdown pass. Their contributions helped Brady tie the NFL record for most games (eight) with 350-plus passing yards, at least three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

You can't set those kinds of records and be passionless.

"I thought it was more balanced today . . . That's how it needs to be," said Brady. "You've got to run it, you've got to throw it to everybody, you've got to keep them off balanced, you've got to screen, you've got to draw, you've got to trap, you've got to downhill run, you need quick-hitters. You need all levels in the passing game."

Such thorough expectations. It's not that New England's offense will never be good enough, it's just that it can be better. For Brady, the Patriots can always be better.

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Showing a knee-buckling lack of self-awareness, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown put up 13:35 of footage on Facebook Live after his team’s 18-16 win over Kansas City on Sunday night.

It was a weird betrayal of the team’s privacy by one of its star players. Brown, allowed viewers to see live (and on tape until it’s inevitably taken down) that, while head coach Mike Tomlin was around a bank of lockers addressing what Tomlin presumed was his entire team, Brown was mugging in front of his phone for a growing online audience.

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The video starts with Brown and teammates having fun in front of their lockers. As the team is called together for a postgame prayer, Brown keeps the camera rolling. After the prayer, Tomlin made a statement.

“When you get to this point in the journey, not a lot needs to be said,” said Tomlin. “Let’s say very little moving forward. Let’s start our preparations. We spotted those a******* a day and a half. They played yesterday. Our game got moved to tonight. We gonna touch down at 4 o’clock in the f****** morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for that ass. But you ain’t gotta tell them we coming. Because some of us might not like the damn (woofkisses?) The chest pounding.  Keep a low profile.”

While Tomlin was issuing that low-profile request, Brown rolled on. Another Steeler then spoke up saying, “Keep cool on social media, this is about us, nobody else.”

Finally, what sounded like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger addressed the team saying of Foxboro, “That’s a lion’s den we’re going into this week. It’s a lion’s den. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there. Keep your mouth shut.”

While people might fan themselves over Tomlin calling the Patriots a*******, that’s benign and likely will be matched in private by Patriots coaches this week.

What’s staggering is that a player of Brown’s ability and seeming intelligence would be so self-absorbed as to be agog at putting on a video show for Facebook followers at the expense of his coaches, teammates and franchise.  

Curran: Steelers' ongoing red-zone issues evident in win over Chiefs

Curran: Steelers' ongoing red-zone issues evident in win over Chiefs

For the third time in the Belichick-Brady Era, the Patriots will be trying to step over the Steelers to get to a Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh went into Kansas City on Sunday night and outlasted a breathtakingly sluggish Chiefs team, 18-16.

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If you spent the day stewing about the Patriots adequate-against-Osweiler-but-probably-nobody-else offensive performance Saturday night, maybe Sunday night calmed your nerves.

Despite having a more than 2-to-1 edge in total yards entering the fourth, Pittsburgh had managed just six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell. Their best chance at getting six on the board was squelched when Ben Roethlisberger got picked at the goal line in the first half.

That Kansas City was even in the game with a chance to tie it in the final three minutes has to be humbling for the Steelers. They dominated every statistical category of consequence while the Chiefs played aimlessly behind Alex Smith, who may be a cut above Brock Osweiler but is definitely a cut below every other quarterback in the Divisional Playoff round.  

On this night, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t much better.

Still, Pittsburgh’s got the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at running back and receiver – LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown were both at 101 yards after halftime – and New England’s entire defensive game plan will revolve around corralling those two and getting them horizontal.

The Patriots beat a Roethlisberger-less team in October, 27-16. Landry Jones was at quarterback that day.

The Steelers were in the Patriots’ red zone four times. They came away with 10 points. They were inside the Patriots’ 40 six times and finished with 16.

“In an offense like that with a bunch of very explosive players, one slant can turn into a touchdown so you have to be really careful in your coverages,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich told me after that game. "There’s not just one go-to guy. They got a running back that can catch it out of the backfield and make plays (Le’Veon Bell). [Antonio Brown] can catch it anywhere on the field and make plays. You just have to make sure with a guy like [Landry Jones] to have him make the throws. It’s hard in this league to be perfect. So to have him sit back there and try to make all the throws was what we chose and the secondary did a great job.”

Bell and Brown combined for 268 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots.

The Steelers scored one touchdown.

The ever-dawdling Bell, who practically walks to the line of scrimmage then skips around like a little kid with a full bladder before finding a crease to exploit, is where it will start for the Patriots.

If the Patriots are going to go to their seventh Super Bowl since Belichick’s hire, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Donta Hightower and Elandon Roberts – their two best interior linemen and their two inside linebackers – will be the ones who start the bus. The overwhelming majority of Bell’s runs are between the guards so building a wall and out-patienting him as he probes for a crease is Job One.

The Chiefs weren’t stout enough at the line of scrimmage and Bell brutalized them. It will, of course, fall to more than just those four. Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Vincent Valentine and Shea McLellin will also be in focus. Run-support from safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be a part of it as well, but that’s where the Steelers become tough to deal with.

Once Bell’s established himself, the Steelers can start to work play-action and get Brown into space. Creep too far and the numbers on the back end could wind up being insufficient to deal with one of the NFL’s fastest players.

That’s why you can expect the Patriots to not overexert themselves with pressures and blitzes against Ben Roethlisberger. They’ll want as many back in coverage as possible to deal with Brown and some of the other Steelers speed merchants.

The Patriots have dealt with Pittsburgh’s defense enough to know where to attack. LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards on 24 carries in the first meeting and

Tom Brady went 19 for 26 for 222 with two touchdowns.

The Patriots had Gronk that day and the Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger. That tips the scales some when measuring the differences. But after watching Pittsburgh kick six field goals and keep afloat an underperforming Chiefs team, the issue that dogged them in October – red zone offense – looks like its still around.

And they are going to visit a team that does that led the NFL in preventing points.