By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Well. That was some football game, eh?
For the majority of the late afternoon — say, from 10 minutes into the first quarter until the final seconds of the fourth quarter — it appeared as though the Patriots were going to lose the football game. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski — and then, Dion Lewis — valiantly drove the Patriots to a comeback in the final minutes … but that feeling quickly disappeared.
JuJu Smith-Schuster broke off a 69-yard catch-and-run, setting up the Steelers for a game-tying field goal at the very least, but possibly a game-winning touchdown. They appeared to have scored that touchdown, but replay officials ruled that Jesse James didn’t control the football as it hit the ground while he crossed the goal line. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger ran a fake spike, had nowhere to throw, and ended up getting intercepted in the end zone by Duron Harmon.
It was an absolutely insane finish, and it left the Patriots as AFC East champions and in prime position to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
There were many ups, and many downs during that emotional roller coaster. Here are four of each.
In his return from suspension, Gronkowski looked like a grown man playing against a bunch of youths. He caught nine passes for 168 yards, including a huge 10-yard pickup on a fourth-and-1 deep in Steelers territory. He also drew a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were driving while trying to tie the game. That drive ended in a field goal … yet on the Patriots’ next drive, Gronkowski turned into an MVP.
He hauled in a 26-yard gain over the middle at the two-minute warning to keep the Patriots alive, and then he caught another 26-yard pass coming out of the two-minute warning. Tom Brady went back to Gronkowski for a 17-yard pass, which Gronkowski caught near his toes, setting up an eight-yard touchdown run by Lewis.
His night was not perfect (as you’ll see in the Downs), but leading that 77-yard touchdown drive (and completing the two-point conversion, to boot) on the road in a rowdy atmosphere with major implications on the line? That is something that most quarterbacks simply cannot do.
Brady did, and he did it with a rather casual disposition. If the man ever does retire, he’ll be sorely missed in moments like this.
Brady finished the day 22-for-35 for 298 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Fortune favors the bold … unless a bold decision is made by a football coach and the results don’t turn out correctly. The fact that the fourth-and-2 in Indy almost a decade ago remains a common discussion point in New England adds some validity to this statement.
So when Bill Belichick elected to pass up an opportunity for easy points by choosing to go for it on a fourth-and-1 at the Pittsburgh 16-yard line while trailing by seven points on the opening drive of the second half, he was opening himself up to some criticism.
But there’s a benefit to being a coach who’s essentially impermeable to criticism, and Belichick was rewarded when Brady connected with Gronkowski for a 10-yard gain. Brady completed a touchdown to Brandin Cooks three plays later.
Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Duron Harmon
There will be a lot of focus on Jesse James’ overturned touchdown and the Steelers’ team-wide failure at the end of the game. But the execution of a trio of Patriots defensive backs was what won the game for New England.
First, Malcolm Butler did an excellent job of running with Darrius Heyward-Bey on second-and-goal from the 10. Butler tackled Heyward-Bey before the receiver could get out of bounds, thus forcing the Steelers into scramble mode.
And it was on that next play — a fake spike — when the Patriots’ defense played it perfectly.
Eric Rowe, defending against the fade, recognized that Eli Rogers was breaking in on a slant. Rowe burst to get in front of the receiver and expertly got his hand in the way to break up the pass.
The bounce off that deflection was most fortuitous, as it went straight into the hands of Duron Harmon. The safety made the interception, hit the turf, and the Patriots had themselves an unbelievable win.
BONUS: Ryan Shazier
The Steelers’ best defensive player has left the football world uneasy over the past two weeks as news of his health status has not appeared to be great. But Shazier was in attendance on Sunday in Pittsburgh, providing a bit of relief that at least he is feeling and moving well enough to be at the game.
BONUS: Ryan Allen
The punter? Yes, the punter. Ryan Allen booted a 54-yard punt late in the third quarter, and Matthew Slater helped settle it on the 3-yard line. It led to the Steelers’ not scoring on the ensuing drive, which was a rarity on the day.
BONUS: Dion Lewis
It’s weird; usually the man who scores the winning touchdown gets all the publicity. But Lewis was a little overshadowed by Gronkowski. Lewis ran for 67 yards on 13 carries and picked up 13 yards on one catch, and he scored the mightily important touchdown with less than a minute left.
The Patriots’ defense simply could not get off the field. They couldn’t force turnovers. They couldn’t make stops on third down. They couldn’t make red-zone stops. They couldn’t keep the Steelers from picking up half the football field in one fell swoop with the game on the line.
When you can’t do any of that, you also can’t win football games.
Somehow — somehow — they were able to shake it off and execute in the final moments of the game to secure the win. But the Steelers reopened a lot of defensive wounds which were an Achilles’ heel for this team early in the year.
Tom Brady’s Interception
If Andy Dalton had thrown the interception that Tom Brady did in the third quarter, the entire football world would have been cackling at how bad it was. In a 17-16 game, on a third-and-2 at the New England 33-yard line, Brady threw off his back foot to nobody in particular. Vince Williams picked it off and returned it to the 22-yard line, and Le’Veon Bell ran for a touchdown a few plays later.
Brady talks often about how taking care of the football is always the most important thing for any player. He failed in that regard in a huge spot.
Entering the game, much of the discussion in New England involved low expectations for Malcolm Butler, thus putting more pressure on Stephon Gilmore to have a big game. Gilmore didn’t deliver.
Notably, Gilmore allowed a 39-yard completion to Martavis Bryant on the first play of the second quarter, a drive that led to a Pittsburgh field goal. He was also trailing in coverage when Bryant hauled in a touchdown pass to end the second quarter and give the Steelers a seven-point lead at halftime. Gilmore had lost track of Bryant to allow a 10-yard catch on a third-and-7 to keep the drive alive, too.
Gilmore also made a diving attempt to nowhere, essentially jumping out of the way and allowing Le’Veon Bell to run for 18 yards on one play.
It was just one game, but it was a big one. And in this one, albeit in a game where Antonio Brown left due to injury, Butler outperformed Gilmore.
The running back has taken on an important role out of the Patriots’ backfield, but that’s going to be on hold for the time being. Burkhead suffered a knee injury on the opening drive of the third quarter and was ruled out for the rest of the game shortly thereafter.
Fortunately for Burkhead, early reports indicate that it’s not a torn ACL and he may be able to return in relatively short order. That would be a best-case scenario for Burkhead and the Patriots, as his touchdown on Sunday was his sixth in the last five games and his seventh overall on the season.
BONUS: Jordan Richards
The 69-yard catch-and-run by Smith-Schuster was not any one person’s fault, but the third-year safety out of Stanford had the best opportunity to simply force the receiver out of bounds after just 19 yards. But Richards wiped out and flailed toward the receiver, allowing him a free pass up the sideline. It was not a winning play.