FOXBORO -- Seeing Red Sox players saluted with their World Series trophy before the Patriots-Steelers game Sunday seemed to rev up the urgency within the local football team.
The Patriots were once undisputed kings of winning and organizational genius among local teams. But eight seasons have passed since the Patriots last rode in the Duck Boats. Meanwhile, the Red Sox just rode in them for the third time in 10 seasons. (Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy so enjoyed his first Duck Boat ride Saturday that he bought the boat.)
But these 21st-century Patriots continue pounding at the door, never tumbling to any "worst" from which to rise. Even with injuries aplenty this season, the Patriots reached their bye week at 7-2 after a historic pounding of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium, a 55-31 victory that had New Englanders thinking the Patriots might at season's end ride like the Red Sox.
Provided the Patriots have any defensive players left standing, of course.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested the Red Sox inspired his team, though it seemed merely a gracious comment for Sunday's honored guests.
"I'm not sure exactly how it all happened today," said Belichick about the 55 points and 610 yards racked up by New England's previously herky-jerky offense.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady finally looked like the real Tom Brady, completing 23 of 33 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns (no interceptions) as New England scored the most points ever allowed by a Steelers team.
"We're going to comb through this with a fine-tooth comb, as we should," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, "and those people who are lacking effort won't be playing."
The score was 24-24 after Pittsburgh's Jerricho Cotchery's second touchdown catch of the third quarter. The Patriots outscored Pittsburgh 31-7 over the final 22 minutes.
Pittsburgh, high and mighty not so long ago, fell to 2-6 this season, but did score its season-high for points, which raises concerns about a Patriots defense that has seemingly exhausted the credo of "next man up."
Having lost defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season, the Patriots on Sunday played their third consecutive game without shutdown corner Aqib Talib (hip). And then linebacker Rob Ninkovich (foot) and safety Steve Gregory (thumb) went out with injuries.
But the offense picked up the battered defense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was back to being Gronk, scoring his first touchdown of the season and spiking the ball as though he were trying to drill it to the earth's core. How we've missed seeing that. In his third game back after missing the first six due to injury, Gronkowski had a career-high nine catches for 143 yards.
"When we're clicking, we're clicking, and it's awesome," said Gronkowski.
"Everybody tries to double-team (Gronkowski) and do a lot of things to try and take him out of the game," said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola. "So it's on a lot of other guys to get the job done."
Amendola, who supposedly cannot be totally healthy this season after opting not to have groin surgery, sure looked 100 percent Sunday while catching four passes for 122 yards and one touchdown.
And rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson had his first career 100-yard game, grabbing five passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard bomb from Brady that made it 48-31 with 5:15 left. It was the first time in team history the Patriots had three players over 100 yards receiving in the same game.
"You don't wake up in the morning and think they're going to be like that," Brady said of the rout. "That was pretty sweet."
Just last Wednesday Brady said November is when teams' championship aspirations go in one direction or the other, "when teams start to separate themselves."
Brady showed what he was talking about with a 151.8 quarterback rating Sunday. He came into the game as the 27th-rated passer in the NFL as he struggled to connect with his new receivers.
"He's one of the best to ever play the game, so a game like this is bound to happen a couple of times every year," said running back LeGarrette Blount. "We were just waiting for this."
There is a long way to go, with healthy Patriots bodies getting fewer. But perhaps next April these Patriots will appear from beneath the giant American flag draped on Fenway's left-field wall for special occasions, with Brady holding a Lombardi Trophy.
"It was fun to see the players out there," Brady said of the Red Sox. "They earned it. That's why you play -- to win those when it matters, to get that trophy."
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