When Santonio Holmes capped a five-quarter epic between the Jets and the Browns at the Meadowlands this afternoon, running in a touchdown catch to win the game for the Patriots' rivals to the south, what had already been an intimdating matchup with the Steelers tonight could fairly be said to loom in the eyes of New England.
The Patriots might've been cut some slack if Mangini had been able to upset another of his former employers -- and he came close -- but with New York ascending to a 7-2 record with the win over Cleveland, the Patriots were either going to win and keep pace in the division, or lose and fall firmly into second place.
It's also more than halfway through the season, and put-up-or-shut-up time for a team that has played inconsistently, despite their record. With another loss this week, last week's collapse could've started to look like the beginning of a bigger slide. With a rebound to win on the road against the Steelers, there might even be room for guarded optimism heading into the next game aganst Indianapolis.
That's a big swing.
Last week's demoralizing loss to Cleveland didn't help allieviate any of the anxiety for Patriots fans. Pregame prognosticators held that the Patriots would have to rely on the passing game to get the better of a run-stuffing Pittsburgh defense -- the passing game led by Tom Brady, of course, who'd pretty much played in that Cleveland game like a pile of dung with bleached teeth. Oh, and Brady was also reported to have suffered a sprained foot in practice this week. Enjoy your evening!
Or so we thought.
History also shows that the Patriots rarely fall apart two games in a row. Brady, who said he felt like "the worst quarterback in the world" last week, doesn't let such things pass lightly, either. And a sprained foot? He's played with bad knees, a separated shoulder and a sports hernia. O me of little faith, it turns out, to be worried a sprained foot would hold him back.
Being a Brady fangirl doesn't mean overlooking others who deserve credit. On defense tonight, that included Patrick Chung, whose presence makes such a difference for the secondary, as well as the Patriots' defensive line, who managed to sack Ben Roethlisberger (described by one CBS commentator during halftime as "about as easy to bring down as an apartment building") a season-high four times.
No. 12 stayed clean and upright throughout tonight's game, too, after being sacked four times last Sunday, and so the offensive line also deserves credit for their improvement. Rob Gronkowski, who'd been looking utterly hopeless when last we saw him, put a seal on tonight's all-around redemption when he became the first Patriots rookie to catch 3 touchdown passes in one game.
But before it was even over, Bill Simmons was summing this up as "one of the great Brady games." I agree.
It was an excellent game for him from a numbers standpoint: 30 of 43 for 350 yards and 3 TDs, 4 if you count the one he scored himself on a quarterback sneak, which he followed by spiking the ball with gusto in the end zone, for the benefit of the few Steelers fans left in the fast-emptying Heinz Field stands.
More importantly, there were whiffs tonight of past Patriots upsets in that same stadium, the ones that occured under this same quarterback as a younger man. Even more hearteningly for Patriots fans, tonight we saw the hypercompetitive, trash-talkin' Tom Brady, the more primal alter ego hiding behind the politician-slick image he's crafted everywhere else, re-emerge on the field after his dismantling at the hands of Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan.
Off the field, many an interviewer has struggled to get more than the most lukewarm, milquetoast statements possible out of Brady, though he handles his non-answering in a much more polite and engaging way than does Bill Belichick, and so catches little of the same heat for his reluctance to dole out money quotes. It is this high-gloss veneer on which most people nationally base their impressions of him, for better or for worse.
But it's the messier, more impassioned Brady we saw tonight -- screaming obscenities and tearing at his chinstrap when forced to leave the field; hollering like a tent-revival preacher in the midst of his linemen when they'd had to punt; and slamming down that ball in the end zone -- that's been driving the rest of Brady Inc. from the beginning. If the rest of him, in his palpably pricey suits and enigmatic haircuts, is PR, then his ruthless, even pathological demand to win is the Product.
It was exactly this Product that Patriots fans (and probably a few Patriots teammates) had needed to see come through, with so much at stake on this given Sunday. And Brady, as he has more often than not, resoundingly answered the call, sending that big swing back our way.