By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Dateline, Pittsburgh. November 14, 2010.

No Handshake Controversy In This One

Had the incredibly good fortune to attend last Sunday night’s Pats/Steelers game at Heinz Field in downtown Pittsburgh. I’m happy to say that the trip was not only well worth it, it also couldn’t have gone any better. From our seats in the fifth row on the 40-yard line behind the Pats bench, we saw a team in total and complete control of every last aspect of the game, enabling it to perform in an extremely hostile environment against another top-level, elite squad and subsequently whoop some serious ass.

The Pats were buoyed by a definite sense of urgency on the heels of the enormous egg they laid in Cleveland last week. You could tell there was something good going on even during pre-game warmups, which went down to an on-and-off chorus of boos. And when the Pats forced a lightning quick, three-and-out on the Steelers first drive, then went right down the field in eight plays covering 70 yards and 4:07 for a touchdown, silencing the rabid, Steelers crowd, the game took an early turn I wasn’t remotely expecting, which was that they’d go on to dominate the game in every facet.

The scene down there was quite cool. Unlike Pats tailgates, which in my experience are pretty mundane, the one we attended was a huge party. 80s metal blared from a couple of giant speakers. Guys with silly hats and Darth Vader masks jumped up and down on the flatbed of a truck trying to rile up the masses. And since the stadium is right downtown, it all took place underneath a highway off-ramp. As far as the fans were concerned, folks were mostly respectful. Sure, there were a few allusions to cheating, which was to be expected, but for the most part, all that people had was to chide Tom Brady about his haircut. One fan told me I sucked as I walked by him on my way out of the bathroom, but when I stopped and thanked him for his kind words, he nodded and said, “all right.” They may love their Steelers and cheer til their lungs bleed, but overall, they formed a pretty civilized group.

As for the game, the Pats had a sparkling game plan and they executed it perfectly. On offense, they came out throwing, forcing the Steelers safeties back, but neutralized their linebackers pass rushing ability with a lot of quick, medium range passes from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Then, later in the game, with the Steelers on their heels thanks to all the success piled up in the passing game, the focus shifted to the run, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis piling up 87 yards on just 18 carries. It was the most damage the Steelers had absorbed on the ground all year. The offensive line owned the line of scrimmage all night, not only plowing all of that room for Law Firm but keeping Brady perfectly clean.

On defense, the Pats took advantage of the Steelers O-line injuries by rushing the passer more than they have all year. They registered five sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and knocked him down another seven times. Roethlisberger wound up with some big numbers, but they came almost entirely during garbage time. James Sanders added a pick-6 and the final score, 39-26, did not accurately represent what a blowout the game really was.

If this was a report card, there would be A’s across the board, with Brady (30-for-43, 350 yards, three TDs and a rushing score in easily his best game since 2007), the tight ends, the O-line and the coaching each earning an A+. The atmosphere down there in Pittsburgh would get a pretty high mark, too. And the Pats fans in attendance, of which there were far more than we’d expected? Let’s give them a big, fat A as well. It was a truly awesome experience, definitely the highlight of this wild, wacky football season.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. (tie) New England/New York Jets: Seems fitting that these two teams share the top spot this week especially given their careening toward a game-of-the-year type matchup in a couple of weeks. The Pats have run the gamut of ups and downs over their last three games while the Jets have been playing with fire against inferior competition like Denver, Detroit and Cleveland but escaping in the end each time. It’s probably fair to assume that the winner on Monday Night Football from Foxboro in Week 13 will get home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

3. Atlanta: Matt Ryan leads the Falcons to a most improbable comeback win in the final minute against the Ravens last Thursday, improving his record to a lofty 18-1 as a starter at home. Unfortuneately for Atlanta, some games need to be played on the road which means until the Falcons win one or two of those, the jury’s still out.

4. Philadelphia: Holy Michael Vick! His redemption tour continued in style in a 59-28 blowout of the Redskins on Monday night in which he totaled six TDs and accumulated 413 total yards all by himself. He also completed 71 percent of his passes, fixed the economy and cured cancer. OK, OK, I made those last two up. But he’s playing so well, so above and beyond anyone’s wildest expectations and so much better than he ever has before that it’s completely legitimate to predict the Eagles have a real shot at the Super Bowl. At least until Andy Reid screws it all up, that is.

5. Pittsburgh: The Steelers earn this spot almost by default after getting completely rolled at home by the Pats last Sunday night. What has to be of huge concern to this team, it’s coaching staff and its fans, is the disappearance of the defense. Not a single member of that vaunted group did a thing in the game, including Troy Polamalu and cry-baby James Harrison. Unless of course you include trying to take out Brady after the whistle.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Carolina: So the Panthers are the worst team in the NFL. Fine. But instead of running a bunch of youngsters out there to see what sticks, doomed coach John Fox signed 31-year old Brian St. Pierre, he of five career pass attempts, to the practice squad this week, then yesterday named him the starter for this Sunday’s game against the Ravens. The alternative, thanks to injuries, is rookie sixth-round pick Tony Pike. You know who else was a sixth-round pick? Brady. Not that Pike will be Brady, but why not start the kid instead of bringing in a guy who was stay-at-home dad until Tuesday? Carolina fans, if there are any left, have to be salivating over the soon-to-be reality of Fox no longer being their team’s head coach.

2. Cincinnati: Here are the Bengals in a nutshell: Last week, after cutting the Colts lead to six points with 2:35 left and successfully executing an onside kick, Carson Palmer completed a short pass over the middle to rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, who’d scored the Bengals previous TD. Gresham was hit as he turned and immediately fumbled, the Colts recovered and ran out the clock. Coach Marvin Lewis, who does not have a contract for next season, has to be wondering if he ever wants to even try to negotiate one.

3. Detroit: Welcome back, Lions! We missed you here on the league’s worst teams list. But after the last two weeks, when you blew a lead and lost to the Jets thanks in large part to a missed extra point then followed it by falling to 2-7 with a loss to Buffalo – the Bills first win of the year – it’s like you never left.

4. Buffalo: That’s right – the Bills are on the board! They outlasted those Lions, 14-12, to improve to 1-8 ,and they have another very winnable game this week against Cincinnati. All that hard work finally paid off. Good for them and their fans. And believe me, it’s a pleasure to not have to say, “the poor Bills,” 100 times at least for one week.

5. Arizona: The Cards were 3-2 and in first place in the lowly NFC West. Then, they lost four in a row to drop to 3-6 and will need a small miracle to get back into the playoff mix. Given their success with him the past two years and how bad they are this year without him despite having pretty much all of the same players, does anyone want to argue that Kurt Warner was the league’s most important player over that stretch?

What’s Trendy

– Troy Smith, 49ers: The former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State who’d been buried at the bottom of Baltimore’s depth chart for the past four seasons, has taken the Niners starting job and sprinted off with it. After a solid performance in his first start in San Fran’s Week 8 win over Denver (12-for-19, 196 yards, 1 TD), he came back after a bye week even better, passing for 356 yards and a score, leading a fourth quarter comeback and driving his team to a game winning field goal in OT against the Rams.

– Devin Hester, Bears: Chicago’s electrifying return man ran a kickoff back 68 yards to set up a field goal, had a 42-yard punt return and caught a 19-yard TD pass in the Bears 27-13 win over the pathetic Vikings. He now has 10 career TD receptions to go with nine by punt return, four by kickoff return and one off of a missed field goal.

– LeGarrette Blount, Bucs: Undrafted out of Oregon likely due to his sucker punch of an opponent and subsequent near brawl with fans after a nationally televised game last year, Blount joined the Bucs off of waivers just prior to Week 1 and is now the featured back for a likely playoff team. His 91 yards on 19 carries in last week’s win over Carolina gave him 329 on 65 carries (5.1 YPA) to go with three TDs in his last four games, three of them Tampa wins.

What’s Not

– The Redskins Defense: Ah, those wonderful Redskins. Where would fledgling football writers like yours truly be without them? On the same day they gave Donovan McNabb one of the most insane contracts in NFL history, they came out and rolled over against his former team at home on national TV. Washington trailed the Eagles 35-0 after the first play of the second quarter, gave up 45 points in the first half and allowed Philly to rack up 592 total yards in the 59-28, Monday Night Football loss. It’s probably safe to say that this team is just as bad, if not worse, under the “genius” Mike Shanahan as it was last year under miscast, glorified QB coach Jim Zorn.

– The Chiefs Defense:
It’s danger time for the once red-hot Chiefs, who have now lost two in a row to fall out of first place in the AFC West. The second of those two losses, a 49-29 thrashing last week in Denver, was as bad as it gets, with KC falling behind 35-0 in the first half and allowing 452 total yards, including 153 on the ground, to the worst ranked rushing offense in the league.

– The Ravens Defense: Someone on ESPN said recently that he thinks the Ravens are the best team in the AFC because they are so well balanced. Um, yeah, not sure this dude has really watched Baltimore play this year. If he had, he’d know that such a claim is bupkis. This once vaunted defense has allowed two fourth quarter comebacks in its last four games (including one last week against Atlanta that went 80 yards and took just over a minute) and gave up 34 points to Buffalo of all teams at home a few weeks ago. It’s not 2000 anymore, folks. The Baltimore defense is a shell of its former self.

And finally…

Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Joey Harrington, Sage Rosenfels, Brian Griese, Ray Lucas, Damon Huard, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen. What do all of these dude have in common? They’ve all started at least one game at quarterback for the Miami Dolphins from when Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season through last night’s 16-0 loss to the Chicago Bears. The Dolphins, one of the model franchises in the NFL through the 70s and into the 80s, have been in a constant state of flux at the most important position in all of sports since Marino hung em up. In addition to rifling though one mediocre signal caller after another (or perhaps because of it), the Dolphins have made the playoffs just three times in 11 years, changed coaches five times over that stretch (by comparison, Don Shula, Marino’s first coach, was at the Miami helm for 26 years), and even suffered through a 1-15 campaign in 2007.
Following that one-win season, Miami brought in Bill Parcells as general manager to rebuild the team. Parcells did what he always does when taking on reclamation projects: he brought in a lot of his own guys both on the field and in the front office, changed the general attitude and culture around the team, oversaw a turnaround that resulted in the team becoming at least functional, then split. In 2008, his first year with the Dolphins, they bounced back from that 1-15 mark to shockingly win the AFC East. Last year, they fell off a bit, to 7-9, and this year, Parcells packed up his office and skipped town early on. After the loss last night, Miami is now 5-5 and in real danger of missing the postseason yet again, thanks not only to being in the same division as the Pats and Jets, but being in the same conference as the Steelers, Ravens, Colts and Titans. And it all comes back to the QB spot.

In 2006, prior to Nick Saban’s second and final year as coach, the Dolphins could have had Drew Brees but instead chose the fragile Culpepper. Culpepper played in just four games, Miami went 6-10, Saban screwed the team over by returning to the college ranks and Brees, who wound up in New Orleans, led the Saints to the NFC Championship game that year, and a Super Bowl title three years later. Then, in Parcells’ first draft in ‘08, the Dolphins chose Henne in the second round out of Michigan, gave him the job last year and watched him show promise but not much more. Now he’s hurt and Thigpen, a third-stringer cast off by the Chiefs of all teams, is running the show. Needless to say, he’s likely not the long-term answer. The bottom line is that until Miami finds a guy who can stay healthy (unlike Culpepper, Green or Pennington), isn’t some journeyman (Fiedler, Feeley, Frerotte, a bunch of others) and can live up to his draft status (Henne, Beck, Pat White, who lasted just a year and never started a game after being a second-round pick last season), it will continue to drift among the league’s middle class or worse.