FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t hide his satisfaction with the foundation of the question. When Tomlin was asked about the fact that his Steelers not only left with a 33-10 victory over the New England Patriots, but also left a couple Patriots battered and bloodied, a quick smile came to his face.
“They hit pretty hard, too,” Tomlin said, generously. “They’re a good football team.”
This is what football is about, particularly at this time of the year. Sure, the NFL might quibble with some of Pittsburgh’s methods – the vicious hit in which safety Ryan Clark launched himself and hit Wes Welker's chest, resulting in to the Pats receiver being sidelined and a possible fine for Clark – but it's what the game is about.
Power, strength, intimidation, call it what you will. But what the 9-3 Steelers did Sunday afternoon was send a message to the rest of the AFC about what to expect the rest of December and probably into January.
“Hey, this is what we’re going to bring at you,” said Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton, who turned a moment of anger into a critical sack in the second half. “We’re going to pound you and pound you and we’ll see who comes out ahead.”
On this final day of November, as a hint of serious winter weather fell in the form of frozen rain, the Steelers put New England’s playoff hopes in jeopardy. If the postseason started today, the 7-5 Patriots would be out, a game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East and a game behind both Indianapolis and Baltimore for the final playoff spot.
Beyond that, the Steelers extinguished all the silly talk of New England quarterback Matt Cassel threatening Tom Brady’s job security or being a franchise player in the offseason (OK, that talk could still have merit). After becoming the fifth quarterback in NFL history to post back-to-back 400-yard games, Cassel went 19-of-39 for 169 yards. Worse, he was sacked five times and was responsible for four consecutive possessions in the second half that ended in a fumble or interception (two each).
Cassel’s free agent value this offseason dropped faster than the stock market. But don’t pin the Patriots' misery all on him. He was betrayed by two critical drops from star receiver Randy Moss (a deep pass down the middle and a potential touchdown, no less). Tight end Ben Watson chipped in with a ball he batted that ended up being intercepted.
Ultimately, when the game was on the line, Cassel shrank. He looked more like Drew Bledsoe, a big-armed guy with no internal clock to figure out that he was about to get hammered by the rush. After the Steelers stretched their lead to 20-10 in the third quarter, the onslaught of errors started.
About the only thing uglier than Cassel’s performance was New England linebacker Pierre Woods’ mouth after he collided with Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller. Woods was spitting blood as he left the field and, like Welker, never returned to the game.
“We treated [Cassel] like we’re supposed to, we got after him and made him uncomfortable back there,” said Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who combined with James Harrison for three sacks. Harrison caused both fumbles by using an excellent speed rush move to get past New England left tackle Matt Light and strip Cassel.
Woodley (11 ½ sacks) and Harrison (14) have now combined for 25 ½ sacks this season, putting them in the class of some of the great Steeler pass-rush combos, such as Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd.
“Well, when I’ve done that consistently, maybe we can talk about that,” Woodley said. “[Harrison] has done it now for two years, so he’s proven that he can be a consistently great player. Me, this is my first year of doing it, so I still have a lot to prove.”
However you want to grade the Harrison-Woodley combo, they were nasty and defined what the Steelers were trying to accomplish.
“That’s football, that’s the way we play and we’re not going to stop,” Harrison said.
“This is our style, we’re going to come up and pound people,” Clark said. “I don’t want to see anybody get hurt and I told [Patriots running back] Kevin Faulk after the game I hoped Welker was OK. I’m not trying to end anybody’s career.”
That said, Clark knows the deal with this game. Last year, he lost his gall bladder and his spleen due to illness, dropped 30 pounds in the process and nearly died.
“Hey, I thought I was going to die, so I understand how scary all of this can be,” Clark said. “But you can’t go out there being scared to play, to do what you do.”
You have to wonder if the Steelers opponents might be just a little concerned with what they saw.