Over the last two weeks, the once-invincible Patriots have started to look fallible. While New England is still undefeated, the Pats have struggled to put away the inferior Eagles and Ravens. This weekend, Tom Brady and Co. will take on Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are sounding confident—safety Anthony Smith has even gone so far as guaranteeing victory. But beating the Foxborough juggernaut takes much more than words. The Patriots aren’t unbeatable, but if you want to take them down, you’ll need great players, great strategy—and some luck wouldn’t hurt. If the Steelers, or any other team, want to end New England’s reign, here’s the master plan they’ll need to follow.
Stop Randy Moss: You’ve just completed a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown march to tie the game. Just as you take a seat on the bench and get some Gatorade, the Pats go long to their stud receiver and regain the lead instantaneously. Oof. Randy Moss’ scores are unusually demoralizing to the opposition, because they come so quickly and seemingly without much effort. It’s imperative to make the Pats work harder to get to the end zone. Moss is not intimated easily, but he is most effective when he can run up the sideline without getting touched and go over the top of defensive backs. The Eagles and Ravens press-covered Moss at the line and rolled a safety to his side to keep him from getting down the field. By smacking Moss around at the line, and never, ever letting him run free, they created the foundation of an upset.
Attack the ‘backers: The 2007 Patriots will not let receivers catch the ball on the sidelines—throw an out route, and Asante Samuel is liable to pick it off. The middle of the field, however, is the defense’s soft underbelly. The New England linebacking corps, while not as old and slow as some commentators would lead you to believe, is a step slower than Bill Belichick would prefer. The recent season-ending injury to outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin means that Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi will have to spend more time chasing receivers, not their strength. Philadelphia in particular exposed this weakness, patiently isolating backs, slot receivers, and tight ends on the Pats’ backers, who were worn out by game’s end. Pittsburgh’s flotilla of sticky-fingered tight ends is particularly well-suited for this method of attack.
Keep it simple: Teams often get caught up in a tactical battle with New England, especially when attacking the Pats defense. While you may be able to fool them once, they are the most adaptable team in the league, and it’s hard to gain traction with formation or personnel tricks. Better to do what the Ravens did and simply smash it right at them. Granted, not all teams have Baltimore’s physical offensive line. But Dallas, well-suited to physical play, tried to shoot it out with the Patriots and got scorched. Should they play in the Super Bowl, I’d much prefer to see the Cowboys’ massive offensive line sledgehammer the Pats for four quarters. Vince Wilfork and his mates on the New England defensive front have actually taken a small step back this season. Since so many opponents have been so far behind so early, this regression hasn’t caught up to them yet. The Ravens, though, came tantalizingly close to making them pay.
Blitz creatively: Getting a pass rush on Tom Brady is the key to stopping the Patriots offense. The New England line is the best in the league at pass-blocking, typically giving Brady as much time as he wants to scan the field for receivers. Sending in extra rushers is the only way to disrupt that comfort zone, but the New England line is too smart and disciplined to let blitzers by if they see them coming, and Brady is the best at unloading to hot receivers when pressured. The key, as the Eagles and Ravens showed, is to blitz in unusual patterns. Both teams often held a defender in the flat, seemingly to cover a tight end or a running back, only to have that defender blitz through a gap after a moment’s hesitation. The gamble was that Brady, not seeing an obvious blitz at the snap, would relax a bit and look downfield. It’s a risky ploy, but even if you don’t hit Brady, you force him to throw shorter than he wants. Provided, of course, that you …
Tackle well: You don’t need Stats Inc. to tell you the Patriots, especially Wes Welker, rank high in yards after catch. If you succeed in forcing New England to throw short, you’ve got to finish the job by wrapping up on the team’s slippery backs and receivers. That’s the only way to stop the Pats from cranking out third-down conversions.
Eliminate mistakes: This Patriots dynasty is reminiscent of the 1996-2000 Yankees. Like those Yankees, the Patriots lack a bunch of guys with gaudy numbers, but they punish opponents who make mistakes and never make big ones themselves. Just when you get a little comfortable and feel like you can go outside the game plan and hit a deep ball, they pick it off. Or you back off too far to prevent a deep pass, and they hit a screen that goes for big yardage. Or you intercept Brady, and in your haste to make a big play, fumble it right back to them. (The Chargers made this unimaginable faux pas in last year’s playoffs.) The Pats, like wolves, sharks, and other apex predators, enforce evolution by killing off the weak and slow-witted. Play smart, or you won’t survive.
Be aggressive late: It’s the fourth quarter and you’re still in the game. Congratulations. Now the bad news: The Patriots will still beat you. Back when New England won back-to-back Super Bowls and 21 straight games, there were few blowouts of the kind we’ve seen this season. The hallmark of the Brady-and-Belichick-era Pats is the knack for making key plays in the fourth quarter. This team has that trait, too: a third-down pass killed the game against Philly, and the Pats got innumerable late offensive conversions and defensive stops against the Ravens. (Forget the Sturm und Drang over the refs: Baltimore still had chance after chance to win.) While it’s best to stick to the “keep it simple” mantra for the first three quarters, it’s vital not to get conservative if you hold a late lead. The Ravens had several opportunities to ice the game and weren’t aggressive or creative enough with their play-calling to get it done.
Pray for rain (and wind): Unlike previous Pats teams, this one isn’t built for slogging through the muck. Considering that opposing teams play them to pass first, second, and last, New England doesn’t run it particularly well. It’s almost as though the Pats have switched roles with longtime bête noireIndianapolis—now it’s New England that’s reliant on throwing the ball and having good conditions under which to do it. The more the wind howls and the rain slicks up the balls, the more likely it is that Brady will lose his uncanny accuracy.
And that’s it—an easy eight-point plan. That shouldn’t be so difficult, right?
Can any team pull it off? The Steelers clearly have the best shot in the regular season. Miami and the Jets simply don’t have the players. A Giants team at full strength might have a chance, but they are injury-riddled right now. Besides, the thought of Eli Manning taking down Tom Terrific with history on the line is difficult to fathom.
That leaves the playoffs. As a devout Pats hater, I could live with a 16-0 season that ends with a postseason defeat—indeed, I find the thought delicious. New England could have to survive rematches with three out of the NFL’s other four best teams: San Diego, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Of these teams, Dallas is best equipped to end New England’s tyranny, with its gigantic offensive line and improving defense. But unlike Anthony Smith, I won’t be making any guarantees.