Brady, Patriots still on top

New England quarterback shines in blowout of Steelers

Posted: Tuesday, September 10, 2002

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are no fluke. They proved it again against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Brady led New England to a 30-14 victory over Pittsburgh on Monday night, passing for 294 yards and touchdowns to Christian Fauria, Donald Hayes and Deion Branch, none of whom were with the Patriots during their surprising run to the Super Bowl.

''We're a better offensive group than we were last year,'' running back Antowain Smith said. ''Once we start getting the running game going with the passing game, I think we'll be a tough offense.''

It was a huge start to the season for the Patriots as they opened the new Gillette Stadium against the team they upset 24-17 on the road in the AFC championship game. Pittsburgh entered as both a favorite to win the conference title and as a 3-point favorite against the defending champions.

''We didn't lose this one. We got whipped,'' Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress said.

Brady, an obscure backup who ended up as Super Bowl MVP after taking over in the second game for an injured Drew Bledsoe, demonstrated that rather than a fluke, he belongs among the game's elite quarterbacks.

Throwing 25 straight times during the second and third quarters, he broke open a 10-7 game with two TD passes in the first half of a 17-point third quarter as New England ran up a 30-7 lead.

The first scoring pass went for 40 yards to Hayes, a free-agent addition, and the second to Branch, a second-round draft choice.

''The three guys we didn't have last year came up big,'' Brady said.

''Playing out there with the rest of the guys, I had to make myself feel as if I was an older guy instead of looking at myself as a rookie,'' said Branch, who had six catches for 83 yards and also had a block that allowed Hayes to score.

Coach Bill Belichick was asked why the Patriots passed so much, and he replied with a laugh: ''We wanted to establish the run.

''You take whatever morsels you can get,'' he added. ''We spread 'em out and found a way to make plays.''

New England's defense also was sparked by newcomers.

Veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley, re-signed just last week, had two of the three New England interceptions, and Victor Green, one of the many former New York Jets on the Pats, forced and then recovered a fumble by Jerome Bettis that set up a TD. It was the first fumble by Bettis in 760 carries.

Other than Brady, who completed 29 of 43 passes, the only hero from last season to contribute to the scoring was Adam Vinatieri, who kicked the 48-yard field goal that won the Super Bowl. He had field goals of 45, 28 and 27 yards.

The first half was tight.

Mike Vrabel's interception of Kordell Stewart's pass at the Pittsburgh 26 led to Brady's 4-yard TD pass to Fauria, signed as a free agent from Seattle. ''The key for us is to spread the wealth a little bit. There are a lot of weapons on this team,'' Fauria said.

The Steelers, who had five turnovers, came right back to tie it, going 10 plays in 74 yards helped by a 23-yard pass-interference call on Ty Law. The TD came on a 13-yard pass from Stewart to Hines Ward.

Vinatieri connected from 45 yards to give New England a 10-7 lead with 2:23 left in the half.

The Patriots made it 17-7 1:33 into the second half.

Brady was sacked on the first play, but then hit Cam Cleeland for 8 yards and David Patten for 37 before finding Hayes for the score. Hayes broke a tackle and got a block from Branch to get into the end zone.

Then came Bettis' fumble that set up the TD to Branch.

The Steelers, who got their final TD on Stewart's 1-yard dive in the final seconds, came out lucky in a way. At 0-1, they're still for the lead in the AFC North.

''It was a disappointing performance,'' said coach Bill Cowher, whose team plays Oakland next week. ''But we're not going to dwell on it.''

Notes: The Patriots had a late touchdown nullified when replay overturned a fumble return by Roman Phifer. Replay showed that Stewart was down when he fumbled after being hit by Willie McGinest. ... Brady's three touchdown passes matched his total for the last eight games of last season, all of which New England won. ... Buckley, signed last week, had three interceptions all last season. ... Pittsburgh linebacker Kendrell Bell, last season's defensive rookie of the year, left the game in the first quarter because of an ankle injury.

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