PITTSBURGH -- In the big picture, and in retrospect as well, the play now looks sort of non-descript, especially given the overall dominance and obvious physical advantage the Pittsburgh Steelers demonstrated Sunday afternoon in ending the New England Patriots' 21-game winning streak with a thud.
By that point, Pittsburgh had already established its superiority over the line of scrimmage, and tailback Duce Staley already had 47 yards on 11 attempts. So, on the short-yardage play, the Steelers figured to pound Staley into the line again, or to bring on Jerome Bettis to grind out the one yard necessary to move the chains, right? Nope. Pittsburgh aligned in a three-wide receiver/one-back formation with Roethlisberger in the shotgun.
Roethlisberger took the snap, dropped just one step, and in perfect rhythm rifled a 10-yard completion to wide receiver Hines Ward, slanting quickly from the right, just a hair inside of Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison. First down, Steelers, and the first real tangible evidence that Roethlisberger would not be rattled by the Bill Belichick-designed defensive scheme.
Ironically, the Steelers didn't score on the series, punting instead four snaps later. But a message had been sent by Roethlisberger, perhaps telepathically, to Belichick. Yeah, coach, you've gotten inside the heads of a lot of quarterbacks, but I don't rattle so easily, Roethlisberger seemed to be saying. OK, so the Steelers' first-round draft pick, who has now rung up a 5-0 record since replacing the injured Tommy Maddox as the starter, doesn't call his own plays. Still, it was notable that Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had so much faith in Roethlisberger that he permitted him to throw in what seemed to be a situation that begged for a gimme running call.
"I don't think there's much in the playbook that we're holding back on now," said Steelers center Jeff Hartings, alluding to the fact Whisenhunt had whittled down the play menu when Roethlisberger first moved into the starting lineup. "The more he plays, the more you appreciate what (Roethlisberger) is doing, and the more you let him do, too."
Indeed, the former Miami (Ohio) University star, who has now won 18 straight starts dating back to a season-opening loss to Iowa in 2003, sure looks like the real deal. Poised. Unflappable. Accurate. Sharp both mentally and physically.
Another example: With 4:52 remaining in the first quarter, Pats stud cornerback Ty Law limped off the field, having aggravated a lingering foot injury on a play on which Roethlisberger had converted a first-and-20 with a 21-yard completion to Ward on a hook route. With Law on the bench, the already shorthanded Patriots had to shuffle their secondary, bringing in undrafted free agent rookie Randall Gay to play the one corner spot.
On the second play after Gay replaced Law in the lineup, Roethlisberger torched the rookie with an incredibly well-placed 47-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. Again, the Steelers rookie didn't call the play. But he was aware enough to know that tight end Jerame Tuman had cleared out the middle of the field, that there was no safety help deep, and that Burress had a half-step on the overmatched rookie.
Roethlisberger's second TD pass to Burress, a four-yard fade, was almost as well-thrown, with the quarterback using the wideout's size advantage over free safety Eugene Wilson, and putting the ball in a spot where only his teammate could catch it. There were some skeptics, yours truly among them, who felt Roethlisberger might suffer at least the occasional meltdown Sunday in playing against a defensive genius like Belichick. But that never happened.
Once again, Roethlisberger was in control, and never seemed to blink. The consensus in the NFL before the draft was that Roethlisberger might, in time, be a superior talent to Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. But the key term was in time, since scouts felt his level of competition in college meant he would need more developmental time. But while Manning and Rivers are still waiting for their first NFL starts, Roethlisberger now has five on his résumé and gets better every week.
He passed an acid test Sunday, not only in besting Belichick, but in throwing virtually every pass imaginable and leading his team to a victory that immediately stoked confidence in the Steelers locker room. And much of that confidence, as manifested on the third-and-one call in the second quarter, is clearly a result of the trust the players and coaches have in their callow quarterback.
The other rookies
Speaking of Manning and Rivers, the events of Sunday were crucial for them, since their teams both won. Let's be honest: Had the New York Giants lost a second straight game, and had Kurt Warner played as poorly in Minnesota as he had in the previous Sunday's home loss to Detroit, it's a pretty good bet coach Tom Coughlin might now have been contemplating the possibility of turning things over to Manning.
But after a horrible start -- being sacked twice on the Giants' opening series, after the defense had recovered a fumble deep in Vikings territory, and having to settle for a field goal -- Warner proceeded to play well enough to keep Manning at bay. He played a relatively efficient game, with no turnovers (despite three fumbles), and did a nice enough job directing his team's low-risk game plan, rife with heavy doses of Tiki Barber.
Being 5-2 and with a rebound victory on the résumé, is a lot better than being 4-3 and riding a two-game losing streak, which is where New York would have been had the Giants and their quarterback faltered on Sunday afternoon. The latter would have sent the Big Apple media masses into a frenzy, for sure, calling for Manning to start. There can be no such suggestion now, though, coming off a victory that ties the Giants for the third-best record in their conference.
As for Rivers, well, he seems destined to spend his entire rookie campaign on the bench, particularly after the performance of Drew Brees in San Diego's 42-14 rout of the Oakland Raiders. Brees threw five touchdown passes, zero interceptions, and rang up a near-perfect passer rating of 153.1. At 5-3, the Chargers are suddenly tied for first place in the AFC West.
Looking at its schedule, there is no reason San Diego shouldn't remain in the playoff chase all season, meaning Brees isn't going to the bullpen anytime soon. And that sets up a pretty intriguing scenario. Let's say Brees takes San Diego to the franchise's first playoff berth since 1995. What do you do then if you are Chargers ownership? You certainly didn't invest all that money in Rivers to have him rust away on the bench. Brees is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring of 2005, is creating a pretty nice little market for himself, and isn't going to re-sign with the Chargers just to keep the starting job warm for Rivers, right? He certainly isn't going back to San Diego on the cheap. Other franchises already have dropped some not-so-subtle hints they would love to have Brees around. Brees clearly has positioned himself in the catbird's seat and the Chargers probably don't have enough money in the kitty to entice him to stay.
Complete effort by Vick
That flash of light many people saw emanating from the Rocky Mountains late Sunday afternoon was: (a) Mike Shanahan's head exploding as the Denver Broncos lost for a second straight week and slid back into a tie for the division lead; (b) the Denver defense, so solid through the first six weeks of the season, being lit up again; (c) the light bulb going on over the head of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
Truth be told, the correct answer is probably "all of the above," but we'll concentrate on only "c" for now. In pushing the Falcons to a critical rebound victory, just one week after Atlanta suffered an embarrassing meltdown in a rout at Kansas City, the exciting youngster seemed to finally figure a way to pull together all the scintillating components of his wondrous skill set. Vick ran for 115 yards, the fourth time he has gone over the century mark rushing in his career, trying a league record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback in only his fourth season.
Far more important, though, Vick seemed to play within the parameters and disciplines of the passing design implemented by coordinator Gregg Knapp. He hit 18 of 24 passes for a season-best 252 yards, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions for a passer rating of 136.1. Almost as notable, Vick distributed the ball better than at any time this year, with six completions to tight ends, nine to wide receivers, three to running backs.
Of note is the nine completions, for 170 yards and two touchdowns, to wideouts. Only once all season had Vick completed more than six passes in a game to his wide receivers. Just twice had he thrown to wide receivers for more than 100 yards. Heck, the Atlanta wide receivers entered the game in Denver with just 36 catches for 515 yards and one touchdown, combined.
Their kind public words aside, guys like Peerless Price, Dez White and Brian Finneran were getting a little antsy about not getting the ball. They had no such concerns Sunday, though, as Vick demonstrated much improved feel for the West Coast derivation Knapp is trying to teach him.
On the ground, few teams are going to have an answer for containing Vick, and the Broncos certainly didn't come up with any kind of remedy. But it's when he is clicking in the air that Vick is most dangerous, since most defensive schemes dare him to beat them with his arm. The win at Denver seemed to represent a step forward for Vick but now he has to build on it. About time, too, that Price got the ball into the end zone. In his first 23 games with the team, the Falcons paid Price $11.34 million, and he scored three touchdowns. On Sunday, he scored twice.
What's up in Minnesota?
You wonder why Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs would tell Sports Illustrated last week that he planned to pick up the option on coach Mike Tice's contract for 2005, even if the team lost every game the rest of the way, and then back off those comments as soon as they appeared in print? Because of inexplicable games like Sunday, a horrible loss to the Giants, that's why.
It was the Giants who began the Vikes' slide in 2003, ending Minnesota's 6-0 start, sending Tice and his club tumbling on a skid that kept them out of the playoffs. And it was the Giants again Sunday, just thoroughly dominating Minnesota, which, with or without Randy Moss, has no excuse for such an ugly defeat.
McCombs would be ill-advised to not keep Tice around. That said, Tice had better watch himself, because the resurgent Packers, back from the dead courtesy of an unexpected three-game winning streak, are gaining momentum, just as they did a year ago. Tice can't afford to have his team collapse around him again.
Oh, yeah, just a note here: Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, after two slow weeks, is no longer on pace to break Dan Marino's league record of 48 touchdown passes in a season. Culpepper's pace is now "down" to 46 touchdown passes. On the other hand, Peyton Manning of Indianapolis is suddenly on pace for 52 touchdown passes. He may need to throw every one of them if the Colts' defense keeps playing the way it has the past couple weeks. Manning and Culpepper face off next Monday night in the RCA Dome.
Owens on the offensive
How much longer can the 7-0 Philadelphia Eagles extend their winning streak? Maybe until some opponent takes out wide receiver Terrell Owens while he's performing one of his silly touchdown celebrations, like Sunday's mockery of Ray Lewis' routine.
It was, truth be told, a well-rehearsed imitation. Had he been on "Dance Fever," Owens would have scored high marks. If he keeps it up, though, he's likely to get himself in trouble. And if Owens isn't on the field, it seems, the Eagles could be in trouble. He now has exactly half of Philadelphia's 18 offensive touchdowns. And anyone who thinks that the Eagles offense can succeed without him, well, think again. The unit has scored more than twice in just one of its last four outings. On Sunday, with Brian Westbrook on the bench with cracked ribs, Dorsey Levens led the Philly ground game, with all of 40 yards.
Take T.O. out of the mix right now and the Eagles might suffer a TKO.
The Colts and Chiefs combined for 1,095 yards in their latest shootout Sunday, the third highest yardage in a game in league history. In a losing cause, Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison had an amazing 21 tackles on Sunday. And, for whatever reason, the 11-year veteran continues to play on special teams, where he had three tackles. Congratulations to Sen. John Kerry who, based on the outcome of the Washington Redskins game on Sunday, will now win the presidency. Well, we'll see, actually. The outcome of the Redskins' final home game before the election has been widely cited as a determinant of elections. The 'Skins lost to Green Bay, which historically means that the incumbent will be bounced. The Redskins have yet to score more than 18 points in a game this season. Point of concern: Carolina middle linebacker Dan Morgan, whose career seems to get stalled by injury every time he gets things going, suffered another concussion on Sunday. He had two similar injuries in 2003 and the Panthers brass has to be concerned about that. The first Roy Williams versus Roy Williams battle in the NFL went to the Dallas Cowboys safety in a forfeit. Detroit rookie wide receiver Roy Williams was sidelined Sunday by a knee injury. Cowboys Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams contributed eight tackles in the Dallas victory. Latest polls show a very close call in the ballot referendum to fund a new Cowboys stadium. Oakland has now lost five straight games, 13 consecutive road outings, and 16 of its last 20 contests. Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller went over 200 yards passing for the first time this season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.