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For Patriots, Steelers will be the start of an identity check

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 9, 2010 07:28 AM

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The real impact from Cleveland will not be known until Sunday, or, perhaps, beyond. That is when we begin to learn whether the mistake by the lake was merely that – a mistake – or the exposure of far more revealing flaws in the Patriots.

And so now it’s off to Pittsburgh, where the Pats will face a Steelers club that defeated Cincinnati last night, 27-21, to create a glut atop the AFC. Along with the Steelers, Ravens and Jets, the Patriots are 6-2. In the next four weeks, the Pats will face two of those clubs -- the Steelers and Jets -- while making a Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit and hosting the Indianapolis Colts (next week). By the end of that stretch, we should know whether the Cleveland game was simply a misstep, or whether the first seven games of the season were the real illusion.

For now, let’s give the Pats the benefit of the doubt.

But nobody needs reminding that this is precisely the stage last season where things began to unravel at a head-spinning rate of revolution.

Ah yes, fourth-and-2. Remember that? The Patriots were on the verge of a resounding victory in Indianapolis that week when it all went poof. Just like that, a game that felt like a rite of passage turned into a trap door, the rug pulled from beneath Bill Belichick’s feet and sending the Pats on a tumble from which they never recovered.

Until this year.

We think.

Now come the Steelers, the true model of excellence in both the short and long of NFL history. Pittsburgh has won six Super Bowls, more than any other club, including an unmatched two in the last five years. The Steelers are -- as usual -- tough, physical, talented, and well-coached. The Steelers went 3-1 this season during the absence of bad boy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- the lone defeat was a last-second loss to the Ravens -- and their only other slipup came in New Orleans, home of the defending Super Bowl champion Saints.

A win at Pittsburgh would do more than merely put the Patriots back on track. It would further legitimize their place as top-tier team this season and put them in control of their own destiny.

Think about it. Even with the loss at Cleveland, the Pats are still right there, tied with the Ravens, Steelers and Jets. Victories over those two clubs would put the Pats in great position to earn a bye in the playoffs -- assuming they get there. The Pats might even be able to suffer a defeat to the Colts in between and still be none the worse for wear, but they have to defeat the Steelers and Jets for that to be true.

In that way, the Cleveland game hurt them some. The Pats could have entered Pittsburgh with some margin for error. But with a win this week, the Pats can effectively nullify that loss and come out with a head-to-head victory over Pittsburgh, which could prove invaluable come playoff-seeding time.

Here’s the problem: with these Patriots, is it presumptuous to be talking about things like playoff seeding and bye weeks? Do they deserve that kind of respect yet? Belichick himself all but declared this the start of a new era when the Pats showed up for training camp this year. Then the Pats had a shaky preseason -- particularly in Week 3 -- before a slow start to the regular season. The Pats were 2-1 after the Buffalo game, but anyone who saw Ryan Fitzpatrick carve up the Patriots defense could not have possibly felt this was a Super Bowl-caliber team.

Naturally, in the subsequent weeks, we began to change our minds. The Pats won convincingly at Miami, defeated the Ravens, then took advantage of some San Diego ineptitude. The Vikings win impressed and suggested the defense was maturing. But then came that absolute stink bomb of a performance on Sunday in which the Pats made Peyton Hillis look like John Riggins and Eric Mangini made Belichick look like Rich Kotite.

Along the way, the Pats dealt Randy Moss. Belichick critics will be quick to point out that the Patriots offense has looked utterly inept over two of the past three weeks, but anyone with half a brain also knows that any New England success this season generally has been directly connected to the performance of the defense.

So let’s discuss. Were the Pats lucky to start 6-1? Did San Diego give them one game and Brad Childress another? Or were those further reflections on the brilliance of Belichick and the mistake-free play of Tom Brady? Are the Browns better than people think or are the Patriots not as good? Do the Patriots miss Moss or does he miss them?

For the answers to these questions and more, tune in Sunday night.

And beyond.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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