FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- THAT the Patriots’ most explosive, most lopsided, and perhaps most encouraging performance of the season came against the Steelers might’ve been a message from the football gods to those Patriots fans who’ve groaned and griped about their team this fall.
After all, in today’s NFL, stability in important positions is considered a crucial component of sustained success — and a Pittsburgh franchise with more Super Bowl titles than any other may be the model for that idea. The same family (the Rooneys) has owned the franchise since its inception in 1933. They’ve employed only three head coaches since 1969, with the current one, Mike Tomlin, in his seventh year on the sidelines. And Ben Roethlisberger is in his 10th season as their starting quarterback.
Yet they awake this morning with a 2-6 record. They are last in the AFC North, and stand 15th among the AFC’s 16 teams. They probably need to go unbeaten over the second half of the season if they’re to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
And they should be a reminder to Patriots fans who forget how good they’ve really got it.
As they head to a well-deserved bye week, the Patriots, for all their blemishes, are 7-2. They’re first in the AFC East, and as the conference’s current No. 2 seed they’re in position to enjoy another bye during the first week of the postseason. They probably need to go just 4-3 over the rest of the season to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season, and the 10th time in 11 years.
It’s all a testament to the stability created by a leadership triumvirate whose abilities in their position are as sterling as the silver that makes up the three Lombardi trophies they’ve won together — from owner Robert Kraft, to coach Bill Belichick, to quarterback Tom Brady — and while no New England football fan should need to be sold on what that troika has meant to this team and this region, sometimes it takes an in-your-face comparison like the one that came to Gillette Stadium on Sunday to help everyone appreciate how special this sustained run really is.
Remember, the Patriots lost four of their five leading receivers during the offseason. Then they then played the first six weeks without the fifth. They’ve since lost their All-Pro right tackle for the season, and on the other side they’ve lost their two starting interior linemen, their best linebacker, and they’ve been without their best cornerback for the past three weeks.
As part of dealing with all that, the roster they took into Sunday’s game included 22 players who weren’t Patriots last season, and 35 of the 53 weren’t with the team when they went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. Only six players have been in Foxborough for at least five years.
Conversely, nine Steelers have been with that team since at least 2008, and 30 are new to the organization since 2011. So it’s not as though Pittsburgh has endured more turnaround than New England, or is in the midst of greater transition. It’s not as though injuries have stung the Steelers any worse than they have the Patriots.
Yet after Sunday, one team appeared to again be trending toward an elite level as the stretch run approaches. The other surrendered more points than it has any other game in its eight-decade history.
“We’d love to be 9-0, but 7-2 is not too shabby. A lot of teams would love to be 7-2,” Patriots’ offensive guard Logan Mankins said. “It hasn’t been easy. In this league, rarely is it easy. You’ve always got to do things right and play hard and practice hard and study hard. You get out there on Sunday and it is always going to be hard.”
The Patriots have indeed made it look hard at times this season, though they’ve won by 20 when the defense allowed three points, and they’ve won by 24 when the defense allowed 31. They’ve won when Brady threw for 116 yards, and when three of his receivers each had more yards than that by themselves. They’ve won twice in the final seconds of regulation, and twice without ever trailing.
They’ve lost a couple of one-score games, too, both of which featured a sequence of costly mistakes. But, by and large, this team – in spite of the inexperience of its depth – has limited those miscues by playing good situational football, winning the turnover battle and exhibiting a mental toughness that bodes well for its efforts to keep this going as the most important parts of the season approach.
“We always talk about, as the season goes on, it’s key to learn and get better in September and October,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Once you start getting into November, it’s key to start playing some of your better football. You don’t want to be playing your best football, but you want to start to see some of those improvements from earlier in the season.”
They’ll evaluate those improvements, and get some rest, before getting ready to visit Carolina after the bye. The Panthers are pretty good, winners of four in a row and owners of the NFC’s best scoring margin (at plus-98). Behind quarterback Cam Newton and an excellent young defense, they’re a team on the rise.
But many teams have risen, and many more have fallen, over the past 12 years. Many have made a run or had their moment. Many have experienced a taste of life at the top since Belichick and Brady changed Kraft’s franchise forever. But the football gods sent the Steelers to Gillette Stadium on Sunday to remind New England that only one has remained there all along.
And that 7-2 — particularly after 146-46 over the previous 12 regular seasons — is the type of stability not to be taken for granted.
“That’s all that matters at this point,” Brady said Sunday. “It’s a week-by-week league and you really get out of it what you put into it. It was a fun week.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.