Perhaps the most amazing thing about the New England Patriots' three Super Bowl titles in the previous four seasons is that the championship rides usually weren't smooth. They were bumpy. So it just seemed like business as usual Sunday when the kings of the NFL shrugged off major knee injuries to safety Rodney Harrison and left tackle Matt Light and continued to do what they do, churning out a 23-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on quarterback Tom Brady's fourth-quarter passing perfection and kicker Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal with one second left.
The Patriots' postgame locker room was less than jubilant. Nobody knows better than the Patriots how much the outlook of a football season can change between September and January. There was a somber aura because Harrison and Light might be lost for the season. But even if there was a been-there, done-that feel to the victory for the Patriots, there also was an air of satisfaction because they'd rebounded from an uncharacteristically sloppy defeat at Carolina the week before and they'd beaten a Steelers team that they respect.
"I feel like I was in a boxing match," said defensive end Richard Seymour, sporting a bandage on his forehead. "Nothing is ever easy against Pittsburgh. . . . Last week we didn't get too low with the loss. This week we won't get too high with the win. But it's nice that we're able to pull out tough wins like this. This is what football is all about. I know it's early in the season and there's a lot of football left to play. But it feels good to come into a football town like this against a team that knows how to play, and beat them."
Coach Bill Belichick and his assistants now have some patchwork to do with the Patriots' lineup. Harrison's left knee was bent inward when Steelers wide receiver Cedrick Wilson was blocked into him on a first-quarter running play. Belichick was, as usual, guarded about injury information after the game, saying it was too soon to know the extent about the injuries suffered by Harrison and Light. But it certainly appeared that the Patriots' veterans were steeling themselves to play the remainder of the season without their emotional leader on defense -- another difficult loss following an offseason in which cornerback Ty Law was released and linebacker Tedy Bruschi decided to sit out the season after suffering a mild stroke.
Of Harrison, linebacker Mike Vrabel said: "Since he's been here, he's been the heart and soul of our defense."
The injury problem became a double dose when Light was hurt while blocking on a second-quarter running play. "Those are two instrumental guys to what we do," Seymour said.
But Belichick, as always, kept his team from feeling sorry for itself, and plugged someone in to get the job done. Second-year pro Guss Scott -- essentially a rookie, since he missed all of last season with a knee injury -- filled in for Harrison. With Nick Kaczur taking over for Light, the Patriots had two rookies -- Kaczur and left guard Logan Mankins -- on the left side of their offensive line.
"Every time that happens, it's an opportunity for the next person," Belichick said. "We prepare hard. We come to the game with 45 guys, and everyone needs to be ready to go. It's tough to lose those guys at the beginning of the game, but the players played competitively and the team played competitively. Unfortunately, it's part of the game."
The game went back and forth. The Patriots committed two first-half turnovers inside Pittsburgh's 10-yard line and the Steelers led, 13-7, in the third quarter. Brady got hot in the fourth quarter and the Patriots moved ahead, 20-13. Pittsburgh used a key pass-interference penalty on Patriots cornerback Chad Scott, a former Steeler, to set up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Hines Ward that tied the game at 20 with 1 minute 21 seconds left.
But that was the same amount of time that the St. Louis Rams left Brady to craft a game-winning field-goal drive in the Patriots' first Super Bowl triumph. And, again, it was enough time for Brady on Sunday. "We've seen that before," Brady said.
He used completions of 17 yards to tailback Kevin Faulk, 14 yards to fullback Patrick Pass and six yards to wideout David Givens to put the Patriots at the Steelers 25. The clock was running and the Patriots were out of timeouts, and Steelers Coach Bill Cowher opted against calling a timeout. He hoped that Vinatieri might feel rushed. Cowher knew it was useless to call a timeout to try to make Vinatieri feel nervous.
No matter. The Patriots calmly set up in field goal formation and got the ball snapped cleanly, and Vinatieri's kick sailed through the uprights. All that remained was for the Patriots to tackle the Steelers on the ensuing kickoff.
Brady completed all 12 of his fourth-quarter passes Sunday for 167 yards. He threw for 372 yards on the day. "If you give Tom a chance, he's going to find a way to beat you," Vrabel said.
Said Vinatieri: "I've seen Tom do it a bunch of times."
The same could be said of the Patriots' other automatic in crunch time, Vinatieri. "That's the guy you want kicking those kind of kicks," Belichick said. "He's pretty good at them."
The Patriots once more are licking their wounds -- but once more they're doing so while savoring a gratifying victory. Sunday's game was a matchup of legitimate NFL heavyweights, and it was more than the usual coach-speak by Belichick when he said: "That was a heck of a game. That was a tough one."
Roethlisberger wasn't particularly sharp Sunday, completing only 12 of 28 passes. But he was tough, staying in the game after hurting his left (non-throwing) shoulder when he was wrestled to the ground by Patriots linebacker Don Davis after an incompletion late in the first half and landed on his left arm.
The second-year quarterback suffered his first regular-season defeat in the NFL. His only previous loss was to the Patriots in last season's AFC title game, also at Heinz Field. The Steelers had their regular-season winning streak ended at 16 games, two shy of the NFL-record 18-gamer by the Patriots that was ended last October by Pittsburgh in the clubs' regular-season meeting.
"There's still going to be tomorrow," Roethlisberger said. "We're still going to play, and we still have a long season ahead of us. The main thing is that the guys in there [the Steelers' locker room] are not discouraged. We're disappointed that we didn't get the win, but we know that we still have a long season. All this loss means is that we can't go undefeated." . . .
Cowher reacted relatively calmly to a glaring second-quarter gaffe by Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. With the Steelers looking to add to a 10-7 lead, Randle El got open and hauled in a pass from Roethlisberger for a 49-yard catch and run. But as he was about to be tackled, he foolishly tried to pitch the ball to Ward, who was caught by surprise and had the lateral bounce off his hands. Patriots safety Eugene Wilson recovered the fumble at the New England 11-yard line, and the Steelers lost a chance to take a commanding early lead.
"Against this caliber of a football team, you cannot ruin opportunities like that," Cowher said. "He understands that. It's just one of those things that just happen. He was trying to make a play. I just told him, 'Let it go. Learn from it, and let's move on. Don't dwell on it.' " . . .
The Steelers were without tailback Jerome Bettis for a third straight game because of a calf injury. Duce Staley made his return from preseason knee surgery but played only briefly and didn't have a carry. Willie Parker, who had filled in so capably for Bettis and Staley in the season's first two games, found little running room Sunday and was limited to 55 rushing yards on 17 carries. It snapped a string of three straight 100-yard rushing performances in regular-season games for Parker, going back to last season.
Jets Awaiting MRIs
The course of the remainder of the New York Jets' season could become clear after quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler undergo MRI exams for shoulder injuries today. Both were hurt during Sunday's overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pennington was working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff. His throws had seemed to lack zip in the season's early stages, leading to speculation that his shoulder was not fully healthy or he was lacking arm strength after being brought along slowly during the offseason and preseason. Pennington returned to Sunday's game after Fiedler got hurt, but that did little to calm fears that he may have suffered a significant setback.
The Jets signed Fiedler, a former starter in Miami, as a free agent in the offseason as an insurance policy in case Pennington's shoulder wasn't sound. Now it's possible that the Jets will have to go looking for a quarterback or two. Brooks Bollinger is the only healthy quarterback on their roster.
Quincy Carter won two of his three starts for the Jets last season when Pennington was sidelined. But the Jets opted against re-signing the former Dallas starter in the offseason. Carter was absent from the Jets at the end of last season, and there were reports that he was in drug treatment. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had him in for a free-agent visit in the offseason but didn't sign him, and Carter remains without a job in the NFL.
Reid Off Hook
Injured kicker David Akers's 23-yard field goal with nine seconds left gave the Philadelphia Eagles a 23-20 triumph over the Oakland Raiders at Lincoln Financial Field, and got Coach Andy Reid off the hook for a highly questionable decision not to have kicker Todd France on his active roster Sunday.
The Eagles signed France to their practice squad last week after Akers suffered a strained right hamstring during a win over the San Francisco 49ers in which linebacker Mark Simoneau was forced to kick an extra point and tight end Mike Bartrum was pressed into service as a kickoff specialist. But the Eagles never promoted France to their 53-man roster, trusting that Akers was healthy enough to make it through Sunday's game.
He wasn't. Not even close. The left-footed kicker aggravated the injury on the game's opening kickoff. Akers had to re-kick because of a penalty and barely could kick the ball, and another penalty forced Bartrum on the field for a poor kickoff that set up a Raiders' touchdown. Simoneau had an extra-point try blocked. The kicking woes nearly cost the Eagles the game, but Akers returned to connect on the winning field goal from, essentially, extra-point range.
The Eagles might have an even bigger concern with the health of quarterback Donovan McNabb, who played Sunday but was in obvious discomfort because of what the team is calling a strained abdominal muscle. The Eagles had referred to McNabb's ailment last week as a groin injury, but there is speculation that it could be a torn abdominal muscle or a sports hernia. It appears that McNabb is intent upon playing through the pain, but the injury seemingly could limit his effectiveness all season. It has been an injury-filled season for McNabb, who also has played with a bruised chest. . . .
Buffalo probably lost linebacker Takeo Spikes for the remainder of the season because of an apparent torn Achilles' tendon suffered during Sunday's defeat to Atlanta.
Texans Returning to Houston on Tuesday
The Texans are scheduled to return Tuesday to their training complex in Houston, which suffered minimal damage from Hurricane Rita. Club officials had made tentative plans to practice in the Cincinnati area this week for next weekend's game against the Bengals, but that won't be necessary. The team simply moved the players' day off this week from Tuesday to today. . . .
CBS reported Sunday that Tennessee tailback Travis Henry will be suspended for four games for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.