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PATRIOTS 23, STEELERS 20

Steal city

Vinatieri, Patriots do magic again

PITTSBURGH -- The game is about wins and losses. That is why they keep score.

So the most important component to a proper analysis of an afternoon of head-banging between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers is, indeed, the final score.

Forget the extended periods of shakiness, the mistakes they had hoped to expunge from their profile, and the continued turns of misfortune that added bodies to the ranks of the injured.

Victory is bliss. Patriots 23, Steelers 20.

For much of yesterday's contest, the 64,868 at Heinz Field watched (and booed) a team that was far from the one that claimed the last two Super Bowls. But in the end, the Patriots (2-1) were quite Patriot-like.

Tom Brady leads drive. Adam Vinatieri makes kick. New England wins.

''It's so fun to be part of these guys that find a way to get it done every time," said Vinatieri, whose 43-yard field goal with one second to play was the 18th game-winning kick of his career. ''I'm the guy that goes out there and puts the icing on the cake, but they've got to go out there and build that cake."

''That was a heck of a football game," New England coach Bill Belichick said. ''It was a terrific game, coming down to the last play. It just doesn't get any closer than that.

''I'm really proud of our team. I thought our players fought hard, played a very tough, physical game, as did the Steelers. Fortunately, we were able to make enough plays in the end."

They made plays and overcame adversity.

Safety Rodney Harrison suffered what appeared to be a serious left knee injury in the first quarter, and offensive tackle Matt Light's right leg injury could be a problem as well for a team that is thin and inexperienced on the offensive line.

Those two events were out of the Patriots' control, but the 10 penalties for 118 yards and the three turnovers were not.

''Those were self-inflicted and uncharacteristic of a Patriots team," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. ''When you continue to do things, they become your character. We've got a lot of work to do. We were fortunate to come out with a victory.

''The percentage of you winning with three turnovers and giving up big plays like we did on defense is way low. We can't continue to play like that."

The Patriots' victory ended Pittsburgh's regular-season win streak at 16 games, just two shy of the Patriots' NFL record of 18 straight, and the Patriots, who lost to Carolina last week, extended their NFL-best streak to 36 weeks of games without losing back-to-back contests.

And in winning 36 of their last 41 games, the Patriots have made last-second victories seem commonplace.

The unflappable Brady jogged onto the field with 1 minute 21 seconds left and the score tied, 20-20.

Five plays later, Vinatieri took the stage and connected for the winner.

''Brady's a cool cat, real cool under pressure, that's why we have three Super Bowls," said backup running back Patrick Pass, who made his only catch -- a 14-yarder -- on the decisive march. ''We have a great offense when it comes down to clutch time.

''Giving us a minute and something on the game clock is a lot of time for us to go down there and make a play. It's winning time."

The entire fourth quarter was winning time for the Patriots, who scored on each of their last four possessions.

Defensively, the Patriots were stellar. Richard Seymour (two sacks) was a fixture in the Steelers' backfield, particularly when the Patriots went to a four-man defensive front, which they did for the majority of the contest.

The Steelers managed only 79 rushing yards and Ben Roethlisberger, who entered the game leading the league in passer rating, completed just 12 of 28 passes for 216 yards.

Brady was superb throughout (31 of 41 for 372 yards) and nearly flawless in the final period, when he completed all 12 of his throws on the three scoring drives.

He completed five straight passes on the first, the last a 30-yard catch-and-run to David Givens (9 catches for 130 yards), who spun past Ricardo Colclough at the 30 and rambled to the Pittsburgh 7.

Corey Dillon took it around right end on the next play, reaching pay dirt with a leap from the 3, to give the Patriots their first lead, 17-13, since the first quarter. (That edge, the result of a Dillon 4-yard run on New England's first possession, lasted all of 15 seconds, as the Steelers struck with an 85-yard pass -- Roethlisberger to Hines Ward -- on the next snap.)

On the Patriots' second fourth-quarter possession, Brady was 4 for 4 in a drive that ended with a Vinatieri 35-yard field goal to put the Patriots up, 20-13.

That should have been enough, especially with the Steelers facing fourth and 11 from the Patriots' 27 with a minute and a half remaining.

But Chad Scott, who spent eight years with the Steelers before signing with the Patriots this past offseason, was called for interference on Quincy Morgan, giving Pittsburgh a new lease on life, and, more importantly, a new address -- the 4-yard line.

Pittsburgh looked in Scott's direction again on the next play, with Roethlisberger finding Ward for the tying score.

The clock read 1:21 after Ellis Hobbs ran 34 yards with the ensuing kickoff. Plenty of time for the Patriots to do what they do best.

Brady to Kevin Faulk for 17 yards, then to Pass for 14. Consecutive plays, with reserve running backs as the targets.

The Patriots ran two more plays, including a 6-yard Brady-to-Givens connection, that were more about taking time off the clock than gaining yards, before calling on Vinatieri on third down to put the game away.

His kick sailed through the uprights with one second left on the clock.

''It was kind of like basketball," Belichick said. ''We were playing for the last shot there. If we make it, we make it. If we don't, time expired and we're in overtime."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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