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Dan Shaughnessy

Lately, their game’s been soft ball

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 31, 2011

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PITTSBURGH - Watching the Patriots beat the Steelers at Heinz Field used to be one of those certainties of life, like Tom Menino carrying Hyde Park or Springsteen selling out the Meadowlands in less than an hour. In the immortal words of Pedro Martinez, the Patriots were the Steelers’ daddies.

No more. The Steelers spanked your football team yesterday, walking out of the Big Ketchup Bottle with a 25-17 victory that felt like a blowout.

“It wasn’t our best day out there,’’ said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who entered the afternoon with a 6-1 career record against Pittsburgh.

Amen, brother Tom.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe the Patriots were favored in this one. New England is 5-2, but the Patriots have been aided by opponent gaffes, perhaps because of the intimidation most coaches feel when in the presence of Bill Belichick.

Think about it: Other than Rex Ryan, most of the coaches bow at the altar of the Hoodie and it makes them do dumb things. Players, too. They all turn into puddles in the presence of New England’s institutional greatness, and that’s how you get Jason Garrett playing not to lose, Jason Campbell throwing the ball to the wrong team, and Norv Turner doing what Norv Turner does. They are like MIT seniors fumbling around at the Playboy Mansion.

The Patriots have relied on the kindness of strangers, and that is how they came to be a 5-1 team that once again looks like it might exit in the first round of the playoffs.

Ty Law and Rodney Harrison are not walking through that door, people. The bend-but-don’t break defense looks broken into a million pieces.

Belichick certainly knows a lot more about football than any of us ever will forget, but we have to wonder about the conga line of experienced defensive backs who’ve been cut loose since the end of training camp.

First it was big-ticket James Sanders. Then it was two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather. And last week it was $3.9 million dollar man Leigh Bodden.

Cutting payroll and experience, the Patriots have left themselves with a suspect crew of defensive backs, bound to be exposed when you don’t have a pass rush (still waiting to hear Albert Haynesworth’s name).

Everyone throws for 300 yards against the Patriots. Ben Roethlisberger rang up 365 yards and converted 10 of 16 third downs against New England’s Mr. Softy Defense.

All Brady could do was watch. The Steelers’ offense was on the field for 39:22. In other words, the Steelers had the ball twice as long as the Patriots. That’s how Bill Parcells won his Super Bowl rings.

The New England defense was so bad that Belichick elected to go with an onside kick with the Patriots trailing by 6 with 2:40 remaining in the game.

Got that? The Patriots had three timeouts, plus the two-minute warning in front of them. All they needed was one three-and-out and Brady would get the ball back for one of those game-winning drives like he just ran against the Cowboys.

But just like in Indianapolis two years ago (remember fourth and 2?), Hoodie had no faith in his defense.

Unfortunately, Stephen Gostkowski’s onside kick looked like the old Charlie Brown/Lucy takeaway play. Gostkowski’s dribbler didn’t go the necessary 10 yards and for all practical purposes, the game was over.

Asked about the strategy, Belichick said, “We had confidence in the play. We thought we would execute it well and give us a chance to get the ball. Obviously, it didn’t work out.’’

Translation: no confidence in the defense.

Try to remember that this is not one of the better Steelers teams you have seen. Pittsburgh is 6-2, but yesterday was the Steelers’ first quality win. The other five victories: Seattle, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Arizona.

In a year in which there is no dominant team in the AFC, the Patriots and Steelers very well could meet again in the playoffs. There would be some nice symmetry to that matchup. The Patriots like to think of themselves as the dynasty of the 21st century, but since New England last won a Super Bowl the Steelers have appeared in the Roman Numeral game three times, winning twice.

“We can’t thrive on beating them last year, or any other year before,’’ said Kevin Faulk, who has been around for the entire decade. “Today is the only day that matters.’’

Members of the Patriots’ defense made no excuses for their horrible game. They said they’d be better able to answer once they see the film. Appropriately enough, they’ll be looking at the film on Halloween.

Boo.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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