logoby Dan Snapp

It was the most insidiously impressive drive of the game.

Albeit outshone by the wonderfully executed play-action bomb to Randy Moss or the splendid Tom-Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Jabar-Gaffney flea-flicker, the Patriots drive to open the fourth quarter Sunday was where they most definitively exerted their dominance over the Steelers.

Driving 89 yards in 13 plays, all passes, and leading to a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, it was an exercise in mastery. The Pats tipped their hand, going empty backfield on all but two plays, but the Steelers couldn’t stop them.

New England went no huddle the entire series, still running the play clock down each time. They completed nine straight passes (the first five to Wes Welker), with the receiver staying in bounds each time, and ran six minutes off the clock. In essence, it was their runless run-out-the-clock squad.

The signature play was the first. The ball at their own one, the Pats had Tom Brady alone in the shotgun. Welker made a quick break outside, Brady caught him in stride, and Welker left James Farrior in his dust for a 22-yard gain.

“How ’bout this?” an awestruck Phil Simms said at the snap. “You’re backed up at the one, and this says it all: ‘We are a passing team.'”

So that’s what it’s going to be. For better or for worse, this is what they are now: the Great American Pass Team.

We’re about to see if the Patriots can do what in any normal year couldn’t be done: win a Super Bowl with a one-dimensional offense.

We warned about the team getting too pass-happy back in August. There are harbingers of this danger every year: Peyton Manning’s record 2004 season gone cold in frigid Foxboro (and him finally winning once he tempered his statlust); John Elway going ringless before Terrel Davis came along ; Dan Marino never winning a title.

So what would make us think things will be different for this Patriots team?

Obviously, nobody’s ever been this good at it. Soon, the Pats will hold the single season scoring record, Tom Brady will best Manning’s passing TD accomplishment, and Randy Moss most likely will surpass Jerry Rice’s season receiving TD mark. Those records might not even survive this week’s Jets game, maybe leaving Eric Mangini’s job on the endangered list as well.

One can hope.

But doing all this, plus maybe going undefeated, plus then maybe winning another Super Bowl, all while running a heavily lopsided offense – it’s just the Patriots thwarting convention yet again.

On first glance at the stats, the Pats look relatively balanced. For the season, they’ve run 43% of the time – pretty decent considering what a pass-happy offense we expected them to be. They’ve also got a respectable 4.0 yards per carry, for a middle-of-the-pack 1,478 total yards rushing.

But the team’s running success the first part of the season skew the results. Through the first five games, the Pats mixed the run and the pass about 50-50, running for 775 yards, an average of 155 a game. The next eight games, they ran the ball only about 37% of the time, running for 703 yards, an average of 87 yards a game.

Dallas seemed to be the turning point. So did the team’s change of MO hinge on Sammy Morris’s injury early in the third quarter of that game?

As the weather’s turned colder, the Patriots have aired it out more. Perhaps it’s just a by-product of situational football, with the recent come-from-behind wins against Philly and Baltimore dictating a pass-first mentality. But why then just the nine carries against the Steelers, a game in which the Pats took control in the third quarter?

When Laurence Maroney talks to the press, it’s usually a bad thing. He doesn’t dance, he says, and we don’t see what he sees. If we’re to believe Laurence, the only things holding him back are the coach’s reins. The team’s choice of plays seems to hint otherwise.

The next two weeks should shed some light on Maroney’s future with the team. The Jets and Dolphins are 30th and 32nd against the run, respectively, a disadvantage the Patriots would love to exploit. If the Pats are still showing empty backfield late into those games, Maroney’s New England days may be numbered.

Then again, they’re only doing what they do best.