Patriots 23, Steelers 20
-- The New England Patriots have some early-season issues. They lost two key players to knee injuries Sunday after an offseason of defections. Coach Bill Belichick still is finding his way without his two most trusted sideline lieutenants, and the upcoming schedule is unyielding.
But they are still the kings of the NFL until some team proves otherwise, and the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't quite up to the task on an afternoon of high drama at Heinz Field. The Patriots turned to their old reliables in crunch time, riding the fourth-quarter exploits of quarterback Tom Brady and getting Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal with one second remaining for a 23-20 triumph that ended the Steelers' regular season winning streak at 16 games.
"It was only a September win, but we're pretty happy with it," Vinatieri said. "Whenever we get a chance with some time left on the clock, it seems like we can get it done."
It looked like a brewing crisis when the Patriots, coming off a sloppy defeat at Carolina, faced a 13-7 deficit in the third quarter. They were staring at the possibility of taking a 1-2 record into upcoming games against the San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, and Belichick undoubtedly would have faced questions about life without departed assistant coaches Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.
The Patriots (2-1) committed two first-half turnovers inside Pittsburgh's 10-yard line Sunday, and their defense, already depleted by the absences of cornerback Ty Law and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, was further weakened when safety Rodney Harrison suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the first quarter. Tackle Matt Light was helped off the field in the second quarter.
But they hung tough, as usual. Brady completed all 12 of his fourth-quarter passes on a day when he threw for 372 yards on 31-for-41 accuracy. Tailback Corey Dillon's seven-yard touchdown scamper with 101/2 minutes left gave the Patriots a 17-13 lead, and Vinatieri upped the advantage to 20-13 with a 35-yard field goal with just more than three minutes to play. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, playing with an injured left shoulder, tied the score with his second touchdown pass of the day to wide receiver Hines Ward, sending the towel-waving crowd of 64,868 into delirium.
But the Steelers (2-1) made the mistake of leaving 1 minute 21 seconds on the clock for Brady, and his final three completions of the day set the stage for Vinatieri.
"They've run away with so many games, it's pretty much been over by the middle of the third quarter," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said of the Steelers. "That was our whole thing, to make it a football game -- keep it competitive and have a chance to win at the end. We handle those situations pretty well."
Roethlisberger suffered his first regular season defeat as an NFL starter; his only previous loss was to the Patriots in this stadium in last season's AFC title game. He completed only 12 of 28 passes for 216 yards Sunday, and Steelers tailback Willie Parker was limited to 55 rushing yards.
"You have to play a full 60 minutes to beat a team like that," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "They're the world champions, and they didn't get that way for nothing."
The Patriots got off to a good start on their opening drive of the game, which culminated with Dillon's four-yard touchdown run. But on the first play of the Steelers' next possession, Ward caught a pass from Roethlisberger in stride around the Pittsburgh 35-yard line and just kept going, outrunning cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Eugene Wilson for an 85-yard touchdown.
The misfortune came in big doses for the Patriots from there. The next time the Steelers had the ball, Harrison was moving into position to try to make a tackle on a running play when Pittsburgh wide receiver Cedrick Wilson was shoved by another player and fell onto the side of Harrison's left knee. The knee was bent inward, and it was immediately clear that the New England defense would have to replace another of its leaders. Light got hurt blocking on a second-quarter running play, leaving Belichick to put one rookie, tackle Nick Kaczur, next to another, guard Logan Mankins, on the left side of his offensive line.
On the drive before Light got hurt, the Patriots reached the Pittsburgh 6 but reserve tailback Kevin Faulk lost a fumble on a screen pass. In the final minute of the second quarter, they got a first down at the Pittsburgh 3. But a false-start penalty on Mankins pushed them back and Brady had a pass tipped into the air by defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and intercepted by safety Chris Hope. Vinatieri pulled a 53-yard field-goal try wide left to end the Patriots' opening drive of the third quarter.
Things weren't going much better for the Steelers, though. They took a 10-7 lead on place kicker Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal in the first quarter. But they squandered a second-quarter chance for more points when wideout Antwaan Randle El, after a 49-yard catch and run, tried a lateral to Ward, who couldn't control the ball. Wilson fell on the fumble for the Patriots at the New England 11. Reed missed a 52-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, ending his string of 22 consecutive successful field goals, moments after Roethlisberger was hurt when he was spun to the ground by linebacker Don Davis on an incompletion and landed on his left arm.
Roethlisberger had to be helped to his feet by the Steelers' trainers, and his left arm hung limply by his side as he walked off the field. But he didn't miss a snap. The Steelers increased their advantage to 13-7 when Reed connected on a 24-yard field goal after a third-quarter fumble by Faulk. Vinatieri got the Patriots to within 13-10 in the final seconds of the quarter with a 48-yard field goal.