FOXBOROUGH - Long after a future Hall of Fame quarterback undressed him in front of a national audience, with touchdown bombs over his head and verbal bombs inches from his face, long after a raucous hometown Patriots crowd mocked him with a derisive cheer that sounded a bit like M-V-P, but upon further review was actually "Guar-an-tee," young Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith stood at his stall in the hush of the muted Steelers locker room yesterday and was offered a chance to rewrite history.
Smith is the second-year player who boldly - and foolishly - guaranteed the Steelers would win yesterday's game against New England.
"Anthony," I asked him, just minutes after New England shredded his team, 34-13, by scorching the secondary for 399 passing yards and four touchdowns, "If you could do it over, would you guarantee the win again?"
"Yes," he answered. "I come out every game to win. In this league, if you walk into an arena planning to lose, you're not a guy anyone will want to play with."
In theory, he is correct. But Smith not only heaped undue pressure on himself with his misplaced arrogance, he also juiced a weary Patriots team that had played three consecutive night games (including a Monday Night Football tilt last week that meant one less day to prepare for the Steelers), and was, quite frankly, looking a bit vulnerable in the wake of tight wins over Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Yet nobody can match New England's ability to take the slightest perceived disrespect and transform it into a major - and personal - injustice. The Patriots relied on this tactic in Super Bowl XXXIX when loudmouth receiver Freddie Mitchell belittled their secondary. They worked themselves into a lather during last season's playoffs when San Diego star Shawne Merriman predicted the Chargers would face the Jets, because they would beat the Patriots.
The latest victim of their motivational frenzy is Smith, the former Syracuse star whose aggressive defensive style was expertly exploited by the Patriots.
"We knew he plays that way, so we put some stuff to take advantage of that," said receiver Jabar Gaffney (seven catches, 122 yards).
"Lesson learned," said Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "A hard lesson learned."
Hobbs is also a young, confident player who isn't afraid to speak his mind or flaunt his abilities, yet he refused to be lumped in the company of Smith.
"I've said some things I've regretted," Hobbs said, "but nothing to that degree. Nothing where I've gotten the whole East Coast ready for you, saying, 'Come on over here so we can slap you around.'
"There's nothing wrong with confidence. You've got to have a little swagger on the field. But there's a fine line, and he crossed it."
Smith remained unrepentant after the game, even suggesting he - and his team - would see the Patriots again. Ike Taylor downplayed the effect of Smith's words, insisting, "This wasn't about him. If you're not already motivated to play in the NFL, then something's not right."
There's no doubt the Patriots targeted Smith yesterday. He was covering Randy Moss when Brady found him in the back of the end zone for the first touchdown of the day. As the quarterback ran to congratulate his receiver, he turned and delivered some choice words to the safety. Brady was so far into Smith's grill, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison felt the need to intervene. While Smith professed not to know what venom Brady spewed in his direction - "If he said something I wasn't paying attention to him," he insisted - the face of the Patriots franchise admitted his words were unprintable.
"I don't care to repeat them, especially if my mother reads it," Brady said. "She wouldn't be very happy with what I said."
Brady exploited Smith again on the very next offensive series. He faked the handoff to Laurence Maroney and watched with glee as the safety came up to help stop the run, then got burned on Brady's 63-yard bomb to Moss. Asked if he intentionally called a play to embarrass the kid, Brady answered, "No, he just ended up being in the right place at the right time."
And then he burst out laughing.
There were yuks all around at Smith's expense. Even coach Bill Belichick, who never will be mistaken for Chuckles the Clown in his postgame news conference, joined in. When asked if he used Smith's guarantee to rally his team, Belichick deflected the question to comments made by Rodney Harrison earlier in the week. Under normal circumstances, the coach would have immediately reverted to his usual Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, but he couldn't resist.
"We've played a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you that," he said.
Smith, by most accounts, is a talented young kid who got carried away (he also suggested last night his quotes were taken out of context). Unlike Mitchell, the former first-round bust who professed not to know the names of any of the Patriots players in the secondary, then was limited to one catch for 11 yards in the Eagles' Super Bowl loss, Smith has a future in the league.
"He's going to be a good player," said Rodney Harrison. "He's young, and he'll learn from his mistakes. This is a humbling league. I've been humbled 100 times. You've got to take it as it comes. You've got to treat everyone with class, regardless of the outcome."
It's interesting to revisit the comments from New England earlier in the week, when most of the Patriots professed indifference over Smith's comments. Now we know better. He ticked this team off, and it was hell bent on making him pay. Brady's verbal assault was accompanied by some choice words from Moss as well.
In addition to his guarantee, Smith dismissed the Patriots' receiving corps, sniffing, "They've got [Wes] Welker and Moss, but they're not like Cincinnati."
Well, Anthony, at least you got one thing right. The Patriots truly are not the Bengals. They don't have eight losses, and they don't have receivers who go into histrionics in the end zone or race thoroughbreds in their spare time.
What they did have yesterday was seven different guys who caught passes, and two (Gaffney and Moss, who hauled in seven balls for 135 yards and 2 TDs) who surpassed 100 yards.
Were Smith and his ill-advised declaration a factor in their prolific output? Yes. But was he the factor? Hardly.
"You know how when you go to a pizza shop and you say, 'I want extra sausage?' " Harrison said, grinning. "There's nothing wrong with extra sausage."
Sure tastes better than humble pie.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.