FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)—The bizarre play seemed guaranteed to fail.
“It was said, it was documented and it was printed,” Moss said. “We wanted it more.”
Even coach Bill Belichick, who rarely criticizes opponents publicly, took a shot at the second-year pro: “We’ve played against a lot better safeties than him.”
Smith didn’t look very good on the weird double lateral play on the Patriots’ first possession of the second half. The gadget play gave them a 24-13 lead against the NFL’s stingiest defense when Jabar Gaffney scored on Brady’s 56-yard pass.
The Patriots became the fifth team with a 13-0 record, joining the 1934 Chicago Bears, 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1998 Denver Broncos and 2005 Indianapolis Colts. They can become the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to finish a regular season undefeated; those Dolphins were 14-0, then won three postseason games for the NFL’s only perfect season.
“This is the point in the year when we’re going to have to start playing our best football,” Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light said. “I don’t think anyone can say we’ve been doing that the past couple of weeks. It’s good to be back on track.”
The victory clinched a first-round playoff bye, and the Patriots should be big favorites to take a 15-0 record into their season finale at the New York Giants.
Their key play started when Brady threw a low lateral to Moss, who fumbled.
“I bet everybody was like uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh,” Moss said.
But he quickly picked it up and threw back to the NFL’s leading quarterback on a play the Patriots practice occasionally.
“That was the first time it worked in weeks,” Brady said. “He made a great play to pick it up and throw it back to me. It was a big turnaround.”
By the time Brady threw the ball, Smith was sprinting to catch up to Gaffney. He leaped and swatted at the ball, but missed as Gaffney cradled it in the end zone.
“I saw him coming. I was like, it’s too late, the ball made it in,” Gaffney said., “We took (the guarantee) as a challenge. We were going to come out here and show them what he had.”
The lopsided victory followed a two-game struggle in which the Patriots (13-0) needed late comebacks to beat teams with losing records, Philadelphia and Baltimore. They had a short week to prepare for the Steelers (9-4) after beating the Ravens on Monday night on a touchdown catch by Gaffney with 44 seconds left.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin discounted the impact of Smith’s guarantee.
“The comments were irrelevant,” he said. “It’s how you play when the game begins.”
Smith said they weren’t reported accurately.
“If I had been quoted right, it wouldn’t have come out the way it did,” he said.
The Steelers would have clinched a playoff berth with a victory, but still lead the AFC North.
Brady is four scoring passes shy of Peyton Manning’s record of 49 set in 2004 and moved ahead of Dan Marino’s 44 in 1986 into third place. Marino holds the second spot with 48.
Moss caught touchdown passes of 4 and 63 yards in a span of 1:59 midway through the first half and has 19 to move into second place for a season. Jerry Rice’s record of 22 is in sight.
Brady also threw a scoring pass of 2 yards to Wes Welker.
It was a beating like so many the Patriots handed out in their first 10 games, when their average victory margin was 25.4 points.
And Smith’s guarantee “definitely fired them up,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethslisberger said of the Patriots.
Just before the 2-minute warning at the end of the game, the fans began chanting “Guarantee!” to mock Smith, whose picture was shown on the scoreboard.
The Steelers were unlikely victims. They started the day allowing just 12.9 points per game with only one reception of more than 40 yards. The Patriots had two catches of over 50 Sunday.
Both of them put Smith in the spotlight.
On the 63-yard touchdown to Moss, Smith took a few steps forward and Moss flew by him and had at least a 10-yard edge on Smith when he caught the ball. Then came Gaffney’s touchdown.
Brady finished 32-of-46 for 399 yards and no interceptions. The Patriots all but abandoned the run at halftime and gained 22 yards on nine carries for the game.
The Steelers led 3-0 on Jeff Reed’s 23-yard field goal, then fell behind 14-3 on Moss’ two touchdowns. But Roethslisberger’s 32-yard scoring pass to Najeh Davenport cut that to 14-10. Reed added a 44-yard field goal late in the first half.
The Patriots’ defense held the Steelers to 156 yards and no points in the second half.
Moss gained 135 yards and Gaffney had 122 as each caught seven passes. Willie Parker rushed for 124 yards for Pittsburgh.
Belichick improved to 100-39 as Patriots coach, including the playoffs. … Brady wasn’t sacked. In 476 pass attempts this season, he’s been sacked just 16 times. … Pittsburgh played without starting safeties Ryan Clark, on injured reserve, and Troy Polamalu, who has a knee injury. Starting cornerback Deshea Townsend left the game in the third quarter, but returned.