Should Bill Belichick's team go on to win its third consecutive Super Bowl, Sept. 25 might be remembered as the day when the latest wave of young players stepped up and answered the call after two veteran teammates were injured.
Should the Patriots fall short this year, however, Sept. 25 might be known as the day the dynasty had its back broken by the loss of two veteran stars.
Whatever the final outcome, the game stands as one of the most exciting of the Belichick era and a classic knockout by New England's killer fourth-quarter combo of quarterback Tom Brady and kicker Adam Vinatieri.
As exciting as the finish was, it will soon be forgotten if the team fails to overcome the injuries suffered by safety Rodney Harrison and left tackle Matt Light. Both were carted off the field with what appeared to be serious knee injuries.
Harrison has been magnificent since joining the Patriots prior to the 2003 season after nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers. He has been the team's leading tackler in each of the last two seasons (140 tackles in 2003; 138 in 2004) and has intercepted six passes in his six playoff games with New England. He has not missed a start as a Patriot.
Light is the most seasoned member of New England's offensive line, having started 63 consecutive games since being drafted in the second round in 2001. As the left tackle, he is entrusted with guarding Brady on his blind side.
A long-term injury to either player would likely force an untested player into a starting role. At Harrison's safety spot, the most likely candidate is second-year man Guss Scott, a third-round pick out of Florida who is seeing his first action this season after missing his rookie season with an injury. Scott made no conspicuous errors filling in for Harrison on Sunday.
The only other safety on the roster is James Sanders, a rookie drafted in the fourth round out of Fresno State. Sanders missed the Pittsburgh game with an injury.
At Light's tackle spot, the most likely replacement for now is Nick Kaczur, a rookie third-round pick out of Toledo. Kaczur replaced Light on Sunday and was beaten on several blitzes before settling down in the fourth quarter. The Patriots also have Brandon Gorin, a fifth-year player who started the final 10 regular season games and all three playoff games last year at right tackle but is now injured.
"Every time that happens it's an opportunity for the next person," said Belichick of the injuries. "We come to the game with 45 players just like everyone else does. Everybody needs to be ready to go."
If the team endures the injuries to Harrison and Light, Patriots fans will remember Sunday's game fondly for the magnificent second-half comeback led by Brady, who completed his last 12 passes and calmly set the stage yet another Vinatieri highlight. When Vinatieri nailed the 43-yard game-winner with one second remaining, it was the 18th time he has kicked a game-winning field goal either in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
"I'm extremely happy to come out of here with a W," said Belichick. "It was a hard-fought game. The players really deserved it. They did a good job."
The game-winning drive began with the ball on the New England 38-yard line and the score tied at 20-20 following a Steelers touchdown. The clock showed 1:21 remaining, which is the same amount of time left when Brady took the field in Super Bowl XXXVI and led the team 53 yards to set up Vinatieri for a game-winning kick.
The degree of difficulty was higher than usual for Brady because the Patriots had no timeouts remaining. Brady proceeded to hit Kevin Faulk for 17 yards, with Faulk going out of bounds to stop the clock. On the next play, Brady hit Patrick Pass for 14 yards and another out-of-bounds. After a no-gainer up the middle by RB Corey Dillon, Brady hit David Givens for six more yards. There were about 42 seconds remaining after Givens' catch, and the Patriots calmly let the clock run down as Vinatieri set up for the kick.
The winning drive was the final twist in a game full of strange turns and momentum shifts.
For the game's first five minutes, the Patriots looked firmly in control. Vinatieri opened the game with a deep kickoff that resulted in a rare touchback, and the New England defense forced a three-and-out. After Tim Dwight returned a punt 19 yards to the Pittsburgh 46, Brady engineered a seven-play drive capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by Dillon.
Momentum turned dramatically, though, as Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Hines Ward connected on an 85-yard touchdown pass, on which Ward found a seam between Patriots DBs Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel to tie the game at 7-7. Eight plays later, Harrison went down and was carted off the field.
The Patriots regrouped impressively after losing their star safety and held the Steelers to a field goal (10-7 Steelers lead). New England's offense then covered 69 yards on a nice drive.
But Kevin Faulk fumbled at the Pittsburgh 14 and the Steelers recovered. Then Roethlisberger went on the attack again. On a second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 36, the second-year quarterback hit Antwan Randle-El, who charged 49 yards upfield.
Before the play was over, though, Pittsburgh had lost the ball. As Randle-El was being tackled, he tossed a harebrained lateral to Hines Ward that wound up in the hands of New England's Wilson.
A scoring drought of nearly 30 minutes ensued, lasting until the Steelers took a 13-7 lead on a 24-yard field goal with 6:11 remaining in the third quarter.
The Patriots caught fire late in the third quarter and into the fourth, notching a field goal, a touchdown and a field goal on successive possessions to take a 20-13 lead with 3:23 remaining.
Roethlisberger then needed only 1:58 to lead the Steelers 51 yards for the game-tying score, which came on a 4-yard pass to Ward.
The Patriots suffered some lapses, but overall were impressive in every phase of the game. Most impressive was the offense, especially in the second half. Brady completed 31-of-41 passes for 372 yards, which is the second-highest yardage total of his career. He threw one interception on a ball that was tipped at the line.
The Steelers defense came hard after Brady all day and sacked him three times, but the Patriots were well prepared for the Pittsburgh blitz that had yielded 11 sacks in the first two games. Brady was quick on the trigger all day without sacrificing accuracy.
Wide receiver David Givens gained a career-best 130 yards on nine catches, including two tightrope sideline grabs. Deion Branch added six catches for 78 yards, and Faulk caught seven balls for 71 yards. Just three games into the season, the Patriots three top wide receivers (Branch, Givens and Brown) have each had a game with 85 or more receiving yards.
Dillon, meanwhile, rushed for only 61 yards on 22 carries (2.8-yard average), but he was good enough to keep the Steelers defense honest. He also scored two touchdowns and provided excellent blitz protection for Brady.
New England had a fine day on defense, holding Pittsburgh to only 269 net yards and 3-of-13 third-down conversions. Running back Willie Parker, who had torched the Titans and Texans for a combined 272 yards in the season's first two games, gained only 55 yards on 17 carries.
Roethlisberger had a horrible day. Despite his 85-yard touchdown pass to Ward, he totaled only 216 yards, with a mere 12 completions on 28 attempts. The Patriots, who played mostly in a 4-3 defense, were on Roethlisberger's tail all day but had trouble bringing down the mobile 6'5" quarterback.
On special teams, the Patriots' coverage was more good than bad. The worst lapse came at a bad time, when Ricardo Colclough busted loose for 44 yards with 3:19 remaining and the Steelers trailing, 20-13. Otherwise, The Patriots held the Steelers to 10.7 yards per kick return and 6.7 yards per punt return.
Meanwhile, the Patriots' kick return tandem of Ellis Hobbs and Bethel Johnson averaged a respectable 25.6 yards on five kick returns, while Dwight averaged 13.8 yards on four punt returns.
The Patriots were coming off a tough 27-17 road loss to the Carolina Panthers. They are now 2-1, and their next game is Sunday against the 1-2 San Diego Chargers in Foxboro.