PITTSBURGH (AP)- Of all the exceptional displays the New England Patriots have put on over the past five seasons, this was one of the most remarkable.

OK, maybe the first Super Bowl, the win over St. Louis, because it was far more important, ranks on top. But Sunday’s 23-20 win over Pittsburgh was close.

Safety Rodney Harrison and left tackle Matt Light went out early with serious injuries, Harrison’s adding to problems in a secondary already missing two key players. Added to that was some very uncharacteristic sloppy play: two turnovers inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line; a face mask penalty on the usually flawless Richard Seymour that negated a sack; and a dropped interception by Seymour that might have been returned for a touchdown.

No matter.

Not when Tom Brady goes 12-of-12 for 168 yards in the final quarter with a left side of the line made up of Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins, two rookies. OK, so Mankins was a first-round choice – he’s still a rookie.

“We brought 45 guys here,” Bill Belichick said. “When one man goes down, that’s what the other is there for. He steps in.”

It sounds so simple, but no other team in football has been able to do it like the Patriots. Heck, they didn’t even use wide receiver Troy Brown in the depleted secondary as they did last season, when they were left with almost nothing back there.

They only won a Super Bowl despite it.

This certainly wasn’t a Super Bowl. And it looked like New England’s second straight loss, something the Pats haven’t had since late in the 2002 season. It was especially grim after Harrison went out with what looks like a very serious knee injury and Light, the left tackle, left soon afterward with a serious leg injury. (Belichick wasn’t saying anything, but it was pretty clear watching them taken off the field that it wasn’t routine.)

And despite the “business as usual” attitude among most of the players, this win wasn’t routine, either, to a team that is now 36-5 going back to the start of the 2003 season. “I’m just so happy!” yelled Christian Fauria, the veteran tight end, as he ran into the locker room after hugging both Myra Kraft, the wife of the team’s owner, and Scott Pioli, the team’s personnel director, also known as Belichick’s alter ego – or co-genius if you will.

Part of it was the injuries, part of it was that the Patriots did what the Patriots just don’t do, even Brady. He got New England to the Pittsburgh 3-yard-line in the waning seconds of the first half. Then Mankins moved early, pushing the Pats back to the 8 before Brady had a pass deflected by Kimo von Oelhoffen and intercepted in the end zone by Chris Hope.

On the other hand, the Patriots did again what no other NFL team has done – beat Ben Roethlisberger and make him look like the second-year quarterback he is.

Against teams other than New England, Roethlisberger is 16-0. Against the Patriots, he is 1-2.

On Sunday, especially in the second half, he seemed unable to decipher where the pass rush was coming from. And when he had time to pass, he demonstrated what’s known in the trade as “happy feet,” several times missing open receivers when he had time. Perhaps that was because he wasn’t sure if Seymour or Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest or Jarvis Green was about to clobber him.

That kept the Patriots in the game until the offense was able to get on track, which it did in a 13-point fourth quarter, scoring on its last three possessions.

“We do seem to be able to handle these situations pretty well,” Vrabel said.

Was he talking about the injuries? The mistakes? The lead that Pittsburgh held for most of the game?

No matter.

New England handles everything pretty well. The Patriots may not win an unprecedented three straight Super Bowls, but at least they will be in position to make a run because of wins like this one.

AP-ES-09-25-05 2148EDT


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