Rapid Reaction: Patriots 39, Steelers 26

PITTSBURGH -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 39-26 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field:

What it means. After living with the bad taste of their 34-14 loss to the Browns for a week, the Patriots responded with one of their biggest wins of the season, starting fast and taking the action to a Steelers team that didn’t bring its A-game. The Patriots led 10-3 at halftime and 23-3 after the third quarter, before a sloppy finish in the fourth quarter. With the win, the Patriots improve to 7-2 -- tied for the best record in the NFL -- while the Steelers slip to 6-3. This keeps the Patriots on pace with the Jets (7-2) in the AFC East and makes quite a few prognosticators (including this one) look awfully silly.

Rob Gronkowski a big bounce-back story. The Patriots’ rookie tight end had a day to forget last week in Cleveland, with a miscommunication on a kickoff that led to a muff recovered by the Browns and a costly fumble near the goal line that was recovered by the Browns and shifted the momentum in the game. He bounced back in a big way in Pittsburgh with three touchdown catches and an overall solid performance while playing a majority of the team’s tight-end snaps with Aaron Hernandez in a more limited role.

Tom Brady leads the way. The quarterback missed Wednesday’s practice and was limited on Thursday and Friday because of a foot injury, but he showed no ill effects while displaying a lot of emotion along the way. Brady didn’t like how he played in Cleveland and he played with a purpose in Pittsburgh. He was terrific, going 30-of-43 for 350 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Defense bends but doesn’t break, then delivers knockout. Returning to its trademark style of play prior to last week’s loss in Cleveland, the Patriots’ defense rose up in the critical situations -- in the red zone by forcing field goals and then in the fourth quarter with James Sanders’ 32-yard interception return for a touchdown to increase the lead to 29-10. A revived pass rush also added a spark, taking advantage of the Steelers’ depleted offensive line by bringing the heat out of its sub packages. The defense was sloppy late in the game, but that didn't overshadow its overall performance.

Steelers didn’t bring their best and the Patriots made them pay. Returning home after three straight road games, the Steelers played with little fire, never getting their ground game going on offense and being kept on their heels on defense by a Patriots attack that took the action to them. The Patriots had the upper hand for most of the night.

What’s next. The Patriots return home to face quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts (6-3) at Gillette Stadium on Sunday (4:15 p.m.). The Patriots have not lost at Gillette Stadium this season.