Patriots-Steelers: can't you smell that smell?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 14, 2010



New England's surprising 39-26 win at Pittsburgh Sunday night had an awfully familiar aroma to it – applewood-smoked bacon if you're a Patriots fan, a burning paper bag at the doorstep if you're a Steelers fans.
 
Hell, reminds us of the cute little lullaby our moms used to sing to us back in the day:
 
show video here
 
 
More specifically, it wasn't whiskey bottles or brand new cars. It was the smell of the 2004 AFC title game. New England's one-star offense torched the league's No. 1 defense in Pittsburgh that night, 41-27.
 
Tom Brady was brutally efficient that day (66.7%, 9.86 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT, 130.5 rating). Brady was brutally efficient again Sunday night (69.8%, 8.14 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 117.4 rating).
 
The Patriots scored on a pick-six in each contest to pad the offensive output (safety Rodney Harrison in the 2004 title tilt; safety James Sanders Sunday night).
 
A furious second-half rally by Pittsburgh (24 points) proved too little too late in the 2004 AFC title game; a furious fourth-quarter rally by Pittsburgh (23 points) proved too little too late Sunday night.
 
The most familiar feeling was found on the scoreboard: New England's 41 points in Pittsburgh in the 2004 AFC title game is the most points the Steelers have surrendered in any game at Heinz Field. New England's 39 points in Pittsburgh Sunday night is the most points the Steelers have surrendered in a regular-season game at Heinz Field.
 
The seemingly flawed, one-star-offense Patriots now stand at 7-2, tied with the Jets atop the AFC East. But perhaps more importantly, the Patriots host Peyton Manning the Colts Sunday in what seems like their annual battle for the conference's No. 1 seed.
 
The winner of the New England-Indy season series has gained homefield advantage and gone on to win the AFC title in six of the past nine season. The Steelers have captured the AFC title in two of those other three years.
 
It's a small, exclusive club of elites, folks.
 
So this back-to-back stretch of New England-Pittsburgh and Indy-New England is likely the biggest two weeks of the 2010 regular season. The AFC East Rival Patriots and Jets, meanwhile, both with a league-best 7-2 record, meet two weeks later on Dec. 6.
 
So there are still plenty of games to lose for all teams involved. But New England certainly must feel good about itself today.
 
Taking a cue from our own Colonel Comey, here are four things we learned from Week 10's biggest game:
 
1. New England's O-Hogs dominated the statistical battle of the year. In our Game of the Week preview at SI.com, we declared the war of attrition in the trenches between New England's No. 2-ranked Offensive Hogs and Pittsburgh's No. 2-ranked Defensive Hogs the statistical battle of the year – at least among those of us who love slopping around in line play analysis.
 
It was a battle easily won in every way by the Patriots. Brady dropped back to pass 43 times. He did not suffer a single Negative Pass Play. No sacks. No INTS. Few if any hurried passes. Few if any Pittsburgh paws landing on him. In fact, he wasn't even touched once until the second half of the game. It was a dominating primer in pass protection against some of the league's most skilled and most feared defenders.
 
Pittsburgh's Defensive Hogs entered the game with one of the best run defenses in history: they had allowed just 2.6 yards per rush attempt, a Super Bowl Era record for stinginess, and the Steelers were the first team in NFL history (according to NBC) to go through the first eight games of the year without allowing a single team to generate at least 75 yards on the ground.
 
The Patriots ran roughshod over those Defensive Hogs, with 24 carries for 103 yards, 4.29 YPA and 1 rushing TD (Brady). Unheralded workhorse BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the way for New England with 18 carries for 87 yards and 4.83 YPA, easily the best day by any ball carrier against Pittsburgh this year. He set the tone early: his first carry on New England's first possession went for 17 yards, the longest run against the Steelers here in what's otherwise been a dominant year for their run defense.
 
The Defensive Hogs Pittsburgh put on the field Sunday night simply were not the Defensive Hogs we watched in the first eight games of the year.
 
The Steelers had allowed opponents to complete 36.1 percent of third downs this year; they actually surpassed that mark Sunday night, allowing the Patriots to convert just 3 of 10 third downs. But in a game in which the New England offense was ripping off huge chunks of yardage – an awesome average of 6.76 YPP – third down didn't matter too much.
 
Coupled with the fact that New England's mediocre D-Hogs dominated Pittsburgh's struggling and wounded O-Hogs, the victory in the trenches made for a surprisingly easy victory on the scoreboard.
 
2. Tom Brady loves him some Roethlisburgers. There's a reason Brady is the only quarterback of his generation to win three Super Bowls: he revels in big-game competition. And no city is more familiar with this phenomonen than Pittsburgh, Brady's home away from home.
 
The Steelers are (with New England and Indy) one of the dominant franchises of the past decade, a two-time champion that consistently fields one of the best defenses in football.
 
But they rarely have an answer for Brady: the Tom Brady Era Patriots are 6-2 vs. Pittsburgh; 6-1 in games in which Brady starts, and 5-1 in games that Brady completes.
 
Those are impressive numbers against an otherwise dominant Pittsburgh team. And Brady is almost always in peak form against the Steelers and their unforgiving defense.
 
Here's are his composite numbers in his seven games against the Steelers, including two AFC title games (and five of seven games overall) in Pittsburgh:
  • 173 of 255 (67.8%), 2,008 yards, 7.87 YPA, 14 TD, 3 INT, 104.83 passer rating
Included in that list is what the Cold, Hard Football Facts declared Brady's greatest game: his virtually flawless effort in Pittsburgh in the 2004 AFC title game, against the league's No. 1 team in both total defense and scoring defense.
 
Brady has topped a 100 passer rating in four of seven games against the Steelers and topped a 90 passer rating in five of seven. He's had just one below-average game. Brady threw 2 TDs and 2 picks with a 72.9 passer rating at Pittsburgh in the 2004 regular season. Naturally, it was the lone loss on the ledger.
 
But that loss in a game that Pittsburgh dominated on both sides of the ball should provide some encouragement for the Steelers if they get a rematch in the playoffs. New England was dominated during that 2004 regular-season encounter, but turned the tables in the AFC title game rematch.
 
So regular-season success does not equal postseason success.
 
3. As Colonel Comey said Sunday night, it's time to end the talk about Moss.  There's no doubt that New England's offensive production had declined significantly in the wake of the Randy Moss trade. We discussed the decline in production in great detail in our Patriots-Steelers preview.
 
But we also noted on Boston sports radio WEEI Sunday night that the Patriots would eventually get their offensive act together. (Keep in mind, we also said the Steelers would win easily ... so take what we say for what it's worth.)
 
In any case, the Patriots certainly got that act together Sunday night. More importantly, the Patriots are 4-1 in the aftermath of the trade, with wins over likely AFC playoff teams Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
 
Moss is just 1-4 with two teams since leaving New England – and that lone win came over the inept Wade Phillips Cowboys. Moss made with debut with Tennessee Sunday, and the result was a 29-17 loss at Miami. The receiver caught just 1 pass for 26 yards.
 
In five games (four with Minnesota), Moss has caught 14 passes for 200 yards and 2 TD. It's a nice day of work – but not five days of work.
 
Both old organization and player have moved on, and the former is obviously faring much better than the latter.
 
4. Pittsburgh's mighty rep and statistical advantages suffered a huge hit. The football traditionalists among you love the Steelers Mystique. Hell, if we had emotions, we'd love that mystique, too. Instead, we're condemned to merely enjoy it from a cold, statistical distance.
 
Pittsburgh remains the lone franchise in football consistently committed to running the football and playing tough defense. It's a winning formula. But any formula is a winning formula, provided you have a Hall of Fame quarterback, which the Steelers do.
 
But that mystique was roughed up badly Sunday night.
 
In the space of a single game, Pittsburgh fell from No.  4 in total defense (298.3 YPG) to No. 9 in total defense (315.4 YPG); and they fell from No. 1 in scoring defense (15.4 PPG) to No. 5 in scoring defense (a 18.0 PPG).
 
Perhaps most importantly, we cited Pittsburgh's mighty Defensive Hogs as one of the statistical keys that might make the Steelers a favorite to win the AFC title. Pittsburgh entered the New England game No. 2 on our Defensive Hog Index, behind only the NFC's Giants.
 
We'll crunch the numbers again after the Philadelphia-Washington Monday Night Football game. But rest assured, those D-Hogs will tumble from their lofty perch.
 
Whether the Steelers do the same this year remains to be seen.
 
But, from our own lofty perch, it's far too early to count them out: it looks like the traditional AFC power Colts, Patriots and Steelers are all destined for the playoffs again.

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