FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- All kinds of nice round numbers have surfaced in the mountain of evidence that the New England Patriots are allegedly the best football team in the world, with the discovery yesterday by the Steelers being especially thick with them -- Bill Belichick's 100th Patriots win, Tom Brady's 4,000 passing yards, New England's total eclipse of the 500-point planet in this pluperfect season.
But this game's biggest number was the smallest, and the roundest:
As in sacks by the Steelers.
Brady was back to pass 46 times, and 46 times, pass he did, which is why New England is 13-0 this morning and the Steelers are, to quote Mike Tomlin on the occasion of the worst defensive performance of his initial NFL season, "not close."
Anyone remember Blitzburgh?
The Steelers have one sack on the previous 90 opposition pass plays, which is no way to polish a reputation as a pressure defense, but it is the worst conceivable failing when you have to line up against Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, et al.
"He got rid of it real quick," said linebacker Larry Foote of a game in which Brady rang up 18 passing first downs and 399 air yards. "He was guessing right on us all night. He was really on top of his game."
Of course, there was no particular reason why he had to be, because the Steelers were not making him even moderately uncomfortable. Not only did they fail to sack him once, but on one play, they actually let him throw it twice.
That came on New England's first possession of the third quarter, when Brady whipped one to Moss in the right flat, where the brilliant wideout was positioned far enough behind Brady that when he dropped it, it was a fumble. Moss picked it up and flung it back to Brady, now positioned behind Moss, and Brady threw it again, this time 56 yards to Gaffney in the Steelers end zone.
Safety Anthony Smith, badly fooled on the play initially, recovered beautifully and caught up to Gaffney just as Brady's missile arrived. In other words, Smith was just in time to pretty much guarantee that Gaffney would catch it for the touchdown that made it 24-13.
"We were out of position," Tomlin said of that one. "We thought we were closing, but we didn't make the play."
That's about as close as Tomlin comes to pointing fingers in public, but Smith isn't the most pressing of the head coach's defensive problems. The Steelers have been stone sackless twice in the past five games, and managed only one in a third.
"Sometimes we got to them," Tomlin said, "and sometimes we didn't."
That's right, except for the first part.
When James Harrison purposely bumped into Brady from behind while Brady was jawing with Smith after the first of four New England touchdown passes, it was about as hard as anyone in white hit No. 12 the mere 25 minutes he was in the game.
At halftime, the Steelers offense had been on the field for 19 of the first 30 minutes, a major accomplishment in the so-called blueprint for beating New England. With the exception of a blown coverage by Smith and Ike Taylor on Moss's 63-yard touchdown, the Steelers played a clinical first half and trailed by only four at the break.
But had the Steelers known there were another 30 sack-free minutes ahead, they could have stayed in the locker room and saved themselves some embarrassment.
"He was good at reading our defense," linebacker James Farrior said. "Our disguises weren't good enough today."
Even operating from a backfield that was often empty but for himself, Brady was rarely even threatened. Brett Keisel tipped one of his passes, but not because he was particularly close.
"We were just not there," Keisel said. "It wasn't meant to be. He was nickel and diming us, forcing us to make tackles, and we didn't make enough of them. He was running a lot of shotgun. He'd get the ball, take one step, and throw. He took us up-front people completely out of the game."
New England ran 55 offensive plays that averaged 7.7 yards, and would have put up 41 points on the league's top-rated defense had Moss not dropped one in the end zone and Stephen Gostkowski not missed a field goal on another possession.
"We worked too hard, worked too hard for this to happen to us," said safety Tyrone Carter, who started his third consecutive game for Troy Polamalu. "You can't make mistakes at the back end of the coverage like we did today and expect to beat this team. That's what's been happening to teams all year against them. They blow a coverage, give up the big play, then they're behind and they can't stay with the game plan.
"It's hard with Brady. He'll be doing things on long counts and a couple of times, I was holding my disguise, holding my disguise, then he'd yell hike. You can't tip your hand too early with him."
But you can tackle him. It is legal.
You would never know it from this performance.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.