FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the turbocharged NFL offenses of the early 21st Century, 31 points might present itself as a relatively modest total, but 31 is enough to win almost anytime, almost anywhere.
Of course, as you’re no doubt painfully aware, there are exceptions.
For example, if you allow 31 points in the final 171⁄2 minutes, or if you get beat 31-7 in the final 17 1⁄2 minutes, that’s another animal entirely.
That’s a dog is what that is.
Several mannerly explanations were presented for what happened to the Steelers Sunday in the wilds of Massachusetts, the most pristine and misleading by the lead executioner himself, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
“It was just one of those days as a quarterback where, you know, you’re throwin’ it, they’re catchin’ it, they’re runnin’ with it, and it makes for a good day,” said the Hall of Famer-in-waiting after his 432 passing yards and four touchdowns sparked the worst torching of a Steelers defense in the history of history.
You’ll notice Brady mentioned no Steelers impediments.
He threw it. They caught it. They ran with it.
Only when Brady was prodded just a bit did he mention anyone in a white jersey.
“Well, guys like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are great players,” he said. “They’re gonna fight to the end. They’re not gonna quit.”
You can say all manner of pejorative things about this latest Steelers caper, and in the post mortem of a 55-31 loss, most would be right.
And you can say that despite all of those things, they never quit, and that would be wrong.
This score was tied, 24-24, with 7:10 remaining in the third quarter, the Steelers having overcome deficits of 14-0 and 24-10, but what happened after that, for the consumption of a national-television audience no less, was little else but the Steelers quitting on their mission, quitting on themselves, quitting on their coaches, quitting on their organization, quitting, inescapably, on their city.
How else to do you allow 31 points on the Patriots’ final five possessions?
Coach Mike Tomlin didn’t see it the way Brady did. He knows it’s a dog when a nice lawn gets soiled.
“Those people who are lacking in effort won’t be playing,” Tomlin said. “We will look at every aspect of what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with. We can’t have performances like that. I don’t care whether 55 points is the most points we’ve ever given up or not. It’s not any more sickening or less sickening based on those results.”
I asked Tomlin if he thought the Steelers had a chance to win at 24-24, or if he had seen enough to that point to know otherwise.
“Absolutely I did,” he said. “Obviously the big punt return was a significant play, but we had overcome some significant plays to that point. But [after that] we didn’t.”
Amazingly enough, there were two spots in the Steelers’ 11th loss in the past 15 games that stood as potential launch points for something that would resemble momentum, the kind of momentum that sometimes leads to victory, as I remember.
The first came when nose tackle Steve McLendon and Polamalu combined to drop Stevan Ridley just short of the goal line on a fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter. It was a scoreless game and the defense had put the Gillette Stadium crowd on mute. But after tackle Marcus Gilbert’s team-leading fifth penalty of the year moved the tail of the ball onto the goal line, Ben Roethlisberger and/or offensive coordinator Todd Haley saw no need to maybe drive the ball forward in that situation. Instead, Ben dropped back, rolled left, threw long, and watched New England safety Devin McCourty snag it instead of Antonio Brown at the Steelers 34.
It took Brady exactly six seconds to draw blood from that, hitting Danny Amendola in full gallop between William Gay and Polamalu for a 7-0 lead.
“We just didn’t play well defensively, more so on the inside, so you can put that on me,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I’m the hub of communications out there. I have to make sure everyone is assignment sound. You have to do that against Tom Brady. Whenever there was a weakness in the defense, Tom Brady found it.”
But Clark knew there was more to this mess as well.
“We didn’t show up, from the first play to the last play. It’s embarrassing, not just for us, for the organization.”
The minor miracle of a 24-24 tie with less than half the third quarter remaining was, as Tomlin noted, poisoned by another junior varsity punt, this one by punter-du-jour Mat McBriar, who ended the Steelers’ next possession by lining one 41 yards to Julian Edelman, who isn’t the fourth-leading punt returner in NFL history for nothing. Edelman brought it back 43 yards and the race to 55 was on.
“We had ’em, 24-24, and we didn’t get the job done,” said defensive end Cameron Heyward on a day when the Steelers allowed 197 rushing yards to go with Brady’s 50,000 passing yards. “I had missed a couple assignments. I messed up a couple times. But there was not one thing they did that was overly surprising.”
You might not be terribly comforted by that, but I guess it’s better than saying, “No, we weren’t fooled; we’re actually that bad.”
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.