For so much of the season, it has been the New England Patriots defense that has dragged the offense kicking and screaming to victory so it was only fair that the offense return the favor as the Patriots ready themselves to tackle the second half of the season. On a day when the defense was not at its best, whether due to errors in execution or finally feeling the effects of the multiple injuries that have been suffered by the Patriots' main defensive players, Tom Brady and the offense put on a vintage performance. Defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 55-31 showed that despite the myriad and numerous struggles the offense has experienced for most of the season, the unit is capable of rising to the occasion.
Rising to the occasion for the Patriots offense on Sunday meant putting together an offensive performance that blows away all they have done in the season up to this point. Finally, at least for one game, the offense put it all together and seemed to figure out how to consistently gain yards, first downs, and points. Of their 13 possessions in which they were trying to gain positive yardage, which excludes their 14th possession that involved a kneeldown to run out the clock, the Patriots gained at least one first down on 11 of them and gained multiple first downs on 10 of them.
For the game, the Patriots ended up gaining 609 total net yards on the aforementioned 13 possessions, meaning the Patriots experienced an almost unprecedented amount of success relative to their earlier season production. Since the Patriots ran 70 plays during the 13 possessions, the offense finished the contest having gained 8.7 yards per play and 46.8 yards per possession and also having scored an incredible 4.23 points per possession, exceeding their season averages in every way. In the fourth quarter to finally put the Steelers away, the Patriots scored touchdowns on four straight possessions.
How the Patriots were able to achieve so much offensive efficiency was the result of Tom Brady playing one of the best games of his career and continually hitting his receivers for big plays in the passing game. Brady completed 23 of his 33 pass attempts for 432 yards and four touchdowns; his 13.1 yards per pass attempt was his highest regular-season average since 2007 when in Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins, Brady averaged 14.2 yards per pass attempt.
Assisting Brady in reaching some spectacular heights of passing efficiency was one usual suspect and two newcomers to the team who went a long way in establishing their reliability in the Patriots passing attack. Tight end Rob Gronkowksi, in his third game back from injury, had his best game of the season, catching nine of the 10 passes thrown in his direction and gaining 143 receiving yards; he also chipped in with a touchdown reception. Danny Amendola did Gronkowski one better and caught all of the four passes that targeted him and gained 122 yards. Aaron Dobson also finished with gaudy receiving totals, 130 yards in all, but was a little less consistent than Gronkowski and Amendola as he only caught five of the nine passes thrown to him; he also gained 81 of those 130 yards, or 62.3 percent of his total receiving yardage, on one pass play.
The offense was not just about hitting the big pass play on Sunday, though the unit did do plenty of that. The Patriots also gashed the Pittsburgh Steelers defense on the ground. Excepting the Tom Brady kneeldown at the end of the contest, the Patriots running backs carried the ball 34 times for 196 yards and a 5.8 yards per carry average. Stevan Ridley led the way for the Patriots running backs with 115 yards on 26 rushes and two touchdowns while LeGarrette Blount (5 rushes for 47 yards) and Brandon Bolden (3 rushes for 36 yards) also chipped in.
The only negative for the Patriots on Sunday was that they were unable to finish more of their drives and score even more points. Eight of their 13 aforementioned possessions ended with trips to the red zone with the Patriots scoring touchdowns on five of them, but having to settle for field goals on two of them; the other drive ended up in a turnover on downs as the Patriots failed to convert a fourth and goal situation. For the Patriots, it was still a masterful performance since they were able to have so much success on their possessions, but finishing more of their red zone drives with touchdowns would have made their performance on Sunday even more memorable.
It was a good thing the offense was so memorable on Sunday because the defense was mostly average. The Patriots allowed the Steelers to gain 478 total net yards on 72 plays (6.6 yards per play) and score 31 points on 13 non-kneeldown possessions for an average of 36.8 yards per possession and 2.38 points per possession. The Patriots defense was able to force the Steelers into three turnovers, sack quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times for a loss of 29 yards, and limit them to converting only five of 13 (38 percent) of their third-down opportunities, but on a purely play-by-play basis, the Patriots found it hard to stop the Steelers from hitting multiple big plays. Still, the Patriots made enough plays to keep the Steelers from being able to put more points on the board and maintaining pace with the Patriots in a shootout.
Sunday's victory represented the seventh victory of the season for the Patriots, but it was only the second one where they truly dominated their opponent and made one think of them as an elite team in the NFL this season; the first was their 20-point win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Patriots want to be taken more seriously as a team that is capable of more than just making the playoffs before bowing out to a superior team, they will need more double-digit victories like the one they had against the overmatched Steelers.