PITTSBURGH -- The only realization you can come to after watching the Patriots' pull apart the Pittsburgh Steelers, 39-26, last night at Heinz Field is that the Patriots are blessed to have the best quarterback-coach combination in the NFL and possibly the best combo in all of sports in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Brady and Belichick, Tom and Bill, TB12 and BB. However you refer to them they're the ultimate pigskin power couple, like a football version of Brangelina or Jay-Z and Beyonce, or, well, Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen. Together, they flexed their muscle -- both physical and mental -- last night in the Steel City and made it clear that the 6-1 start wasn't a fluke. Just ask Pittsburgh, which got taken to school by Belichick and Brady last night on national television in their own black and gold backyard.
The 39 points were the most the Steelers have ever allowed at Heinz Field, and it would have been 40-plus if new kicker Shayne Graham hadn't missed an extra point.
There was a line of thinking that when the Patriots reached the point that the only reasons you could give for their presumed place among the NFL's elite was the canonized coach-QB couple, it was a sign of the franchise's demise. Rather, their presence seemingly ensures that as long at both are in place at Patriot Place, the Patriots can never be counted out, no matter how many injuries they suffer, how young their defense is, or how pedestrian their pass catchers look at times.
That's why the Patriots landed home today tied with the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the NFL at 7-2. It's why home field advantage throughout the playoffs is possible for a team that most pegged as a 10-win outfit at best. It's why Randy Moss will continue to pine for what he had in New England.
Last night was classic Brady and Belichick mastery of an opponent. Brady was chief operating officer of the offense and Belichick chief executive of the defense.
Forget all the phony stats that the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, who somehow ended up 30 of 49 for 387 yards and three touchdowns, piled up last night in a garbage time performance that would have even made former Celtic Ricky Davis blush. After three quarters, Big Ben was a big dud. Confused and pressured by Belichick and without his most reliable receiver, Hines Ward, Roethlisberger was 10 of 26 for 123 yards after three quarters, when the Patriots led 23-3.
After that it was all meaningless fantasy football numbers for Big Ben.
Belichick out-Steelered the Steelers. Knowing Pittsburgh was dealing with a makeshift offensive line due to injuries to left tackle Max Starks and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, the Patriots blitzed Roethlisberger, forcing he and his young receivers to make quick reads. The result was five Patriot sacks.
The Steelers had generated a league-high 21 interceptions coming into last night, but the only turnover of the game belonged to Belichick's opportunistic bunch, a fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown by safety James Sanders. Belichick had his fingerprints on that timely takeaway.
"We knew in certain formations that they were going to run a lot of crossing routes," said Sanders. "We suspected they were going to run some crosses. Pat [Chung] made a great play on the ball against [Antwaan] Randle-El, who was trying to run a ram route on him. I just read the quarterback, went to the ball and Pat made a great play. I just capitalized on it."
The Patriots were one step ahead, just like their quarterback. Brady put on a clinic against the Steelers, going 30 of 43 for 350 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added a 3-yard QB sneak for a TD. Brady should have come out postgame in hospital scrubs after the way he operated against the Steelers's vaunted defense.
Brady no doubt saw what Saints quarterback Drew Brees was able to do to the Steelers on "Sunday Night Football" two weeks ago, when Brees was 34 of 44 for 305 yards. In that game, New Orleans ran 67 plays and dropped back to pass 46 times. Against Pittsburgh, the Patriots ran 67 plays and sent Brady back to throw 43 times.
It's the type of game plan that you're not running against the Steelers, who had multiple takeaways in their last seven games, unless you trust your QB implicitly. Brady, whose brain is just as strong as his arm, diagnosed and dissected the Steelers to perfection.
"They spread us out and just took what we gave them," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "It was a very intelligent game plan, but very hard to execute."
At least it was supposed to be, but Brady made it look about as challenging as riding bikes with his sons.
Forget the unfair talk about family man Brady's best days being behind him or him adopting a laissez-faire Los Angeles attitude now that he spends the offseason on the West Coast. Brady's completion percentage (64.5 to 64.2) and touchdown pass total (17 to 16) are both higher than Peyton Manning's so far this season. Their interception totals are identical -- four. Not spending every waking hour in Foxborough for the off-season program has really set Brady back this season, huh?
The Patriots have beaten both the big, bad Steelers and the Ravens, teams that on paper have more talent than them. What those teams don't have is Brady and Belichick. That makes all the difference.
It's a duo that is driven by the naysayers and linked inextricably in pro football history. The two even appear to be rubbing off on each other. Brady's postgame press conferences have become banal and terse.
Meanwhile, Belichick left the locker room last night wearing a very stylish black fedora.
Both deserve a tip of the cap for what they've done to guide the joined-in-progress Patriots this far.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.