AFTER THROWING his first touchdown pass of the game on Sunday, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady weaved through the Steelers' defense, sifting through the jersey numbers until he found the one he was looking for. When he spotted number 27—Pittsburgh free safety Anthony Smith, who last week guaranteed a victory over New England—Brady lit into him, barking at Smith until several players stepped in to break up the fracas.
"I don't care to repeat what I said, especially if my mother reads it," Brady said later. "She wouldn't be very happy."
The Patriots don't do happy, either. They are at their clinical best when they are at their irritable worst, which describes their mood during their 34--13 beat-down of the Steelers in general and Smith in particular. Fueled by two weeks of insipid play on their part and one mouthy prediction on Smith's, the Patriots (13--0) got their swagger back by removing his. They had other reasons to be angry, namely the memory of Ravens running back Willis McGahee dancing through their defense on Dec. 3. "When you see someone rush for 138 yards on you, you feel humiliated," strong safety Rodney Harrison said. "It wasn't a happy film session this week."
The Patriots directed most of their anger at Smith, a second-year player whose pregame guarantee included a jab at New England's receivers. (Smith said that Cincinnati's were better.) Brady & Co. treated him like a schoolyard patsy. In the second quarter Smith bit hard on a play fake to running back Laurence Maroney and rushed toward the line of scrimmage as wideout Randy Moss sped past him. Moss's 63-yard touchdown catch gave New England a 14--3 lead.
The Patriots victimized Smith again early in the second half, when Brady short-hopped a lateral to Moss, Moss tossed the ball back to Brady, and Brady threw a 56-yard rainbow to wideout Jabar Gaffney over Smith's flailing arms to put the Patriots up 24--13.
That Smith was on the short end of both big plays was not an accident. "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, piling on. "The safety play at that position was pretty inviting."
Late in the fourth quarter, Smith's picture appeared on the Gillette Stadium scoreboard screen. The crowd erupted with chants of "Gua-ran-tee! Gua-ran-tee!"
With three hours of good football the Patriots were back on track, ready to continue their march toward a perfect season with their customary joylessness. Next they face the Jets (3--10), who turned in Belichick for filming the Jets' defensive signals in Week 1. Then it's the Miami Dolphins (0--13), whose former coach, Don Shula, told the New York Daily News last month that the Patriots' record deserved an asterisk as a result of Belichick's transgression. ( Shula later recanted.) And, finally, the Patriots have a road game against the New York Giants (9--4), who will probably have a playoff spot sewn up by then and nothing to play for.
As for Smith? He was still talking after the game. He said he expects the Steelers (9--4) to return to New England for the playoffs. "We will see them again," he said.
He did not offer any other predictions.