By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sunday afternoon’s game between the Patriots and Steelers was billed as the NFL’s game of the year. It lived up to the hype.
And then some.
The Patriots offense, somewhat sputtering throughout the game, came alive thanks to an explosive performance by Rob Gronkowski in the final two minutes.
The Patriots defense, unable to stop the Steelers all evening, committed an atrocious breakdown to let the Steelers either tie or win.
The officials overturned a would-be game-winning touchdown for the Steelers after it was bobbled.
Ben Roethlisberger, nearly perfect through 59 minutes of football, made a back-breaking mistake.
The Patriots capitalized and won the game. And it just might have won them the AFC.
That was as wild as wild gets.
The Patriots and Steelers are now 11-3 on the season, but the Patriots own the tiebreaker and will own the No. 1 seed in the AFC if they can finish out the year with two wins over the Bills and Jets. The stakes were incredibly high for this one, and the two teams delivered an absolute classic.
“We just knew that it was going to be a great football atmosphere, a great game,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “And it was. It was awesome.”
Nobody rose to the moment more than Gronkowski. After the Patriots took over while trailing by five points with 2:06 left to play, Brady completed a 26-yard pass over the middle to the big tight end before the two-minute warning. Coming out of that two-minute warning, Brady went back to Gronkowski for another 26 yards.
On the next snap, Brady threw again to Gronkowski, who reached down to his toes to snarl his mitts around the football while falling to the turf. He secured the ball for a 17-yard gain, and the Patriots had a first-and-goal at the 8-yard line.
“He just kept getting free. I thought he did a great job of separating, making the catches, giving him some chances on 1-on-1 throws,” Brady said of his all-world tight end. “I’m just really proud of him. That guy fights his ass off every day.”
With three catches for 69 yards on that drive, Gronkowski upped his total to 168 yards on nine receptions. And after Dion Lewis ran into the end zone to put the Patriots up by a point, Brady lobbed a ball to the corner of the end zone for Gronkowski, who easily hauled in the pass for two points and a three-point lead.
“Football is a crazy game,” Brady said. “You just keep fighting.”
The game appeared to have been won — or at the very least, overtime was secured. That’s when all hell broke loose.
On first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 21-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger completed a short pass over the middle to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who managed to run away from Eric Rowe, avoid Jordan Richards on the sideline, and break free for a ridiculous 69-yard catch-and-run.
Patriots safety Duron Harmon was credited with the tackle to finally end the play. His name would pop up shortly thereafter.
The Steelers had the ball at the New England 10-yard line with 34 seconds left, and the game-tying field goal was a mere formality. But the Steelers wanted more, and Roethlisberger threw a pass to tight end Jesse James over the middle. James twisted his body across the goal line while making the catch, and he allowed the ball to shift in his hands when it hit the turf. It was ruled a touchdown on the field, but after a lengthy review, the touchdown was taken away.
The Steelers still had plenty of time and opportunity, though, to score that game-winning touchdown. Roethlisberger went back to a crossing pattern on second down, hitting Darrius Heyward-Bey over the middle. But Malcolm Butler — as sure a tackler as there is — ripped the receiver to the turf before he could get out of bounds.
With the clock ticking and Pittsburgh out of timeouts, the Steelers ran a fake spike from the 7-yard line. The Patriots had it well-covered, and Roethlisberger — knowing he could not afford to take a sack — threw the ball into traffic over the middle.
The pass, intended for Eli Rogers, was tipped by cornerback Eric Rowe. It deflected directly to Harmon, who came up with the interception in the end zone.
And just like that, the Patriots went from losing, to winning, to losing, to going to overtime, to potentially losing, to winning the football game.
There may be some debate about the overturned touchdown, but there shouldn’t. Though nothing in the NFL is every officiated with 100 percent consistency, that’s a catch that all regular NFL viewers understood would not stand after review.
The rest of the narrative will be fascinating to follow. Brady, in an up-and-down performance, may have done enough to secure the NFL’s MVP Award. Gronkowski reestablished himself as arguably the most unstoppable force in the NFL.
And whatever happens over the final two weeks of the season, the eventual rematch between these two teams in the AFC Championship Game ought to be another classic. But there’s no chance it lives up to the expectations set by Sunday’s unbelievable finish.