Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Brady, Pats' offense finally spring to life
NOW THAT'S more like it.
After half a season spent wondering what had become of the Patriots offense, several weeks of asking whether Tom Brady had suddenly moved past his prime at age 36, and on the heels of a 16-yard perfromance that saw the star quarterback booed off the field at halftime, everthing is right again in New England's football world.
A day that began with an appearance from the Red Sox and their world title trophy ended with the Patriots giving fans a reason to think they might be celebrating another championship as soon as February. The team's offensive juggernaut in full effect as it scored more points than any team ever has against the storied Steelers, taking a 55-31 triumph that sends New England to the bye week with an all-things-considered terrific record of 7-2.
"Maybe we got our inspiration from the Red Sox," coach Bill Belichick said after. "I thought our guys played hard today, made some plays in all three phases, and we were able to take advantage of some scoring opportunities. I thought our guys put a good week of work in."
And as impressive as the result of that work was collectively, the numbers were just as astounding individually.Three Patriots tallied at least 100 yards receiving, led by a career-high nine receptions from tight end Rob Gronkowski, good for 143 yards. Danny Amendola added four grabs for 122 yards. And rookie Aaron Dobson made five catches, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second of which went for an 81-yard backbreaker and brought his total for the day to 130.
The production was there on the ground, too, where Steven Ridley scored twice among the 26 hauls that totaled 115 yards — but on this day the biggest star was Brady.
Last week he left Gillette Stadium with his hands in his pocket as rumors abounded that he was dealing with a finger injury. If he is, he didn't show it Sunday as he threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, the third-highest yardage total in franchise history and the fifth 400-yard game of his career.
It was the 37th time he threw at least three TDs without being picked, and the 15th time he's thrown at least four without an interception. That's the most ever — so it was an all-time-type performance from an all-time great.
It was vintage Patriots.
"The execution with our offensive is improving bit by bit," Belichick said, "A lot of things came together today."
Through 30 minutes the Patriots offense looked as good as it has all season, scoring 24 points for the second consecutive half, and gaining more yards (318) than it has in any half since 2009. Going into intermission, Gronkowski had seven catches for 119 yards, while Amendola had worked his way wide open for gains of 57 and 34 yards, and both of them had scored touchdowns. So had Ridley, on a 1-yard run with 10 seonds left in the half, and so New England went to the locker room with a 24-10 advantage.
That edge was erased and the game reset within the first eight minutes of the third quarter, when Pittsburgh first capitalized on a Ridley fumble, then seized the energy created by LeVeon Bell starting the next series with a 25-yard run on first-and-20, and finished both of those drives with touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery.
But the Patriots took those bullets — even while also absorbing another potentially significant injury, this one to the thumb of signal-calling safety Steve Gregory — and quickly recovered to begin reasserting their dominance. They scored on each of their next three series, starting with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, then following it with Ridley's second run, Dobson's two catches, and LeGarrette Blount's hard plunge.
By the time that came, the outcome was long decided. But the record book was still being rewritten.
And order was being restored.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. HIs e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.