FOXBOROUGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers were supposed to be the final formidable road block that stood between the Patriots and a potential undefeated season. They turned out be nothing but a Black and Gold speed bump that Tom Brady and Co., didn't even slow down for.
With three games remaining, the Patriots appear to be in the HOV lane to history - the first 16-0 regular-season in the annals of the NFL.
The Patriots became the fifth team in NFL history to win its first 13 games and clinched a first-round playoff bye with a 34-13 pasting of Pittsburgh yesterday in front of a giddy Gillette Stadium crowd of 68,756. The Patriots treated Pittsburgh's top-rated defense, which entered allowing 230.8 yards per game, like window dressing instead of a steel curtain, compiling 421 total yards of offense, 399 through the air, the second-highest yardage total of Brady's career.
Brady completed 32 of 46 passes and threw for four touchdowns, bringing his total to 45, four shy of Peyton Manning's NFL record.
"We came out and took care of business," said Jabar Gaffney, part of a Patriots wide receiving corps that combined for 24 catches for 344 yards and four touchdowns. "They were doing a lot of talking, guaranteeing victory, saying that our receiving corps wasn't that good, so we went out there and showed them."
The mouthy Steelers made the mistake of prodding the Patriots with inflammatory rhetoric courtesy of second-year safety Anthony Smith, who guaranteed a Pittsburgh victory.
Brady chastised Smith after his first TD toss, a 4-yarder to Randy Moss, vigorously pointing at him.
"I don't care to repeat it, especially if my mother read it," said Brady, who went over the 4,000-yard mark for the season (4,095) for the second time in his career. "She wouldn't be very happy with what I said."
Late in the game Patriots fans mocked the safety with chants of "Guarantee!" Afterwards, the Patriots mocked Smith as well.
"We've played against a lot better safeties than him," said Bill Belichick, who picked up his 100th win, including the postseason, as Patriots coach.
As usual, the Patriots proved their point with points. New England scored 20 unanswered points, starting with a 42-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal that gave them a 17-13 halftime lead and ending with 28-yard field goal by Gostkowski with seven minutes left in the game.
In between the Patriots pulled off some passing prestidigitation to take a 24-13 lead. On its first possession of the second half, New England lined up with three receivers to Brady's right. The quarterback threw a lateral to Moss who dropped the ball, picked it up, and lateraled it across the field to Brady. No. 12 uncorked a 56-yard parabola that landed in the arms of Gaffney. The last Pittsburgh defender on the play was Mr. Guarantee, Smith.
"It's a play we've practiced a few times and it came in handy today," said Belichick. "It was a big momentum play for us in the third quarter. It was a nice job by Gaffney, really selling it, and Moss by dropping the ball. I think that really gave it a little more draw. I wish I could take credit for that, but that wasn't part of the play."
After Brady's fourth TD pass of the game, a 2-yarder to Wes Welker, gave the Patriots a 31-13 lead, the frustration started to boil over for the Steelers.
Linebacker James Harrison and Logan Mankins grappled on the ground and the teams had to be separated. But by that time the Patriots already had separated themselves from the spurious Steelers, who couldn't back up their swagger.
"We beat a good football team. We might see them again who knows. They came into our house and we gave the fans exactly what they wanted," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
A week after being bullied, in the words of safety Rodney Harrison, by the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots defense allowed Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker to pick up 124 yards on 21 carries, but shut out the Steelers in the second half.
Trailing, 31-13, Pittsburgh had first and goal at the New England 8, but came up empty when Harrison stuffed wide receiver Hines Ward on an end around from the 1.
"We played Patriots football and that's what I'm used to playing since I've been here for five years," said Harrison. "Going out here and not taking any crap, standing up to a big physical team like Pittsburgh and doing what we do best. That's playing sound, fundamental football and very physical and that's what we proved today."
Unlike the Philadelphia Eagles and Ravens, both of whom flirted with ending the Patriots' pursuit of perfection, the Steelers had no answer for Moss, who had seven catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. After being held to a combined 77 yards receiving and one TD in the last two games, two of Moss's first three catches went for scores, including a season-long 63-yarder in the second quarter, where he raced past Smith, who bit on a play-action fake.
The two TD grabs gave Moss 19 touchdowns on the season, establishing both a personal best and a Patriots record for touchdowns in a season. Moss had been tied with Curtis Martin, who scored 17 TDs in 1996. He is now just three TD receptions shy of tying Jerry Rice's NFL record of 22, set in 1987.
He could get that next week as the Patriots seek revenge against the Jets.
At least the Steelers, who broke up the Patriots' 21-game winning streak, including the playoffs, in 2004, snapped one current Patriots' streak.
New England entered as the only team in the NFL not to allow an opponent to score on its opening possession. Pittsburgh marched 59 yards on 15 plays in 8 minutes and 14 seconds before settling for a 23-yard Jeff Reed field goal.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wasn't buying that his safety's comments fueled the Patriots.
"At 4:15, what was said during the week was irrelevant. It's about what you do and how you play. After a performance like that and how they beat us up, yeah, you can point back to that comment, but that's a good football team and I doubt if those comments were a motivating factor."
The Steelers just never learned.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.