While the main story through this NFL season has been the lack of one or two truly stand-out teams thus far (such as last year’s New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, both of whom were undefeated through 12 games), if you forced me, at gunpoint (or at being-a-Buffalo-Bills-fanpoint—congrats on the win, guys!) to pick the top two teams, I would have picked the two that met last night: The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tablet Magazine team the New England Patriots. There are still seven more weeks of regular season to go (thank God!), but last night, the Pats, coming from the egg they laid last week in Cleveland, continued their tour through the Rust Belt with a real show in Pittsburgh.
The Pats scored 39 points—which is two touchdowns and a field goal more than the Steelers’ top-ranked defense had allowed to any other team this season—and held Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, and the rest of the Steelers offense to 26 points (and half of that came in garbage time, as the Steelers were allowed wider sway to march up the field in nearly certain futility). The Pats established their running game early on. Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski scored three touchdowns, making a very, very small number of fantasy owners very, very happy. But the real story was quarterback Tom Brady. He went 30-for-43, 350 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a QB rating of 117.4, at times making it look as though he were running some top-tier college offense mowing down a vastly inferior in-conference rival. More than that, he fired up himself and his young team and led them to victory. You were reminded that he is the superstar he is, the legend who won three rings and nearly a fourth last decade.
The Pats are still not a head-above-the-rest squad: Their young defense, which was facing a Steelers offense that is good but not explosive to begin with and was missing its starting left tackle for the whole game and number-one receiver Hines Ward for most of it (which demonstrably hurt Pittsburgh during two red zone possessions), still has a ways to go. I would not take them against last year’s Colts or Saints. But this year, the championship may very well be theirs to lose.
It really is too easy to compare the electricity blackouts that briefly afflicted New Meadowlands Stadium yesterday with the play of the home team, the New York Giants, who lost 33-20 to the League-joke Dallas Cowboys. Whoops, looks like I did it. In fairness, I had been waiting for this Jints squad to self-combust—this is the same franchise, recall, that started last season 6-0 before failing to make the playoffs, and two seasons ago came off their championship with a bang before losing four of their final five, including the playoffs’ first round. (Number four in the power rankings would have been absurd even had they won this week.) So some embarassing defeat like this was on the way.
But I would be lying if I said I expected it to come at home to a Cowboys squad with one other victory, a back-up quarterback, and a brand-new coach who basically knows he will be replaced by [insert your guess among Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, and Tony Dungy] during Super Bowl Week. The story of the game was the Giants’ defense allowing big plays, to both rookie Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (who even this ‘boys despiser must admit looks like the best draft pick of the year, along with the St. Louis Rams’ number-one-overall Sam Bradford) and running back Felix Jones. Other than that, the game was probably a bit closer than the score looked; even Giants QB Eli Manning did not fall back on his usual ways (just kidding, he threw two interceptions). But this game should not have been close! The spread was 14 points—the other way! Next week, the Giants face their arch-rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, who would have been my pick for best team in the National Football Conference even before yesterday’s flop. You do not want your firewall game to be against the best team in your conference.
Speaking of which! Tune in tonight to see the Eagles play ball in Landover, Maryland, against Tablet Magazine’s final team, the Washington Redskins. There are two big questions: Will the Skins defense figure out Eagles QB Michael Vick, and will former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb bounce back from his benching two weeks ago and putrid play the past several weeks? The latter question will get the attention from the broadcast booth, but the former question will actually decide the game: Last time the two teams met, the Redskins injured Vick in the first quarter, and thereby escaped Philly with a win. Will they be so lucky this time? It is a defense like the Redskins’—fickle and unpredictable, but also turnover-happy and bruising—that is the one sort that can bring Vick down, even without literally bringing him down. If it can’t, then the Eagles will win, and will be the clear favorite to lose in mid-February to whichever American Football Conference team emerges from the scrum.
Our record: 17-9.
Earlier: Week 9: Enter Sage, and the Giants
Week 8: Bye Week
Week Seven: Three for the Road
Week Six: Just Win, Baby
Week Five: True to Form
Week Four: Winning Ugly
Week Three: A Whole Lot of Crap
Week Two: Three Up, Three Down
Week One: Check The Scoreboard!
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.