PITTSBURGH – There they were, with the chance to complete a comeback victory in one of the NFL’s iconic venues. Terrible towels waiving all around them. A sky that had just stopped pouring rain above them. Nine seconds left. Red zone. Third and 7. AFC supremacy on the line.
How’s that for situational football?
As Ben Roethlisberger waived his arms and shouted at his receivers, the Patriots defense thought back to chilly practices and long meetings in New England. Be ready for the fake spike, coach Bill Belichick had told them. The Steelers had done it before, and they’d seen it on film. The offense doesn’t try one in practice on a daily basis, but they do it enough that the defense always knows it’s a possibility.
“If they catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they’re going to try to do it,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “You could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to line guys up and get set because we knew there was a chance.”
That preparation allowed the Patriots defense to make the play of the game – Eric Rowe’s tipped ball and Duron Harmon’s subsequent interception in the end zone – and avoid blowing their own comeback.
“It was really a good job by Eric Rowe,” Harmon said. “He deflected the pass, I was just there to catch it. It really goes with us being alert, us being prepared, getting ready for the fake spike, I mean, we’ve seen it on film. We [were] ready for it and Eric Rowe made a great play and I just was there to clean it up.”
For Harmon — “The Closer,” as he’s come to be known since Super Bowl LI – it was his fourth interception of the season.
“Just trying to be around the ball,” Harmon said. “Always trying to be around the ball. Always reading the quarterback, and just trying to get around the ball because you never know with a tip, a missed throw, a high throw, just always trying to break to where the ball is because you get stuff like that tip.”
For Rowe, it was a redemptive play after he was in coverage on JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers receiver’s 69-yard catch-and-run that nearly cost the Patriots the game.
“I knew he [Smith-Schuster] was going across and I was on him, but then I got picked off just a little bit by their receiver and then, you know, once he broke that tackle I was like ‘Oh my God’ and then I was really mad at myself for letting that happen,” Rowe said. “In my head I was like ‘Damn, I just gave up this game by myself.’ And then they scored, that made me feel bad, but then it got overturned and I was like ‘OK, just got to keep playing. One last play.’ And God, I was blessed to make the play.
He almost wasn’t in position to make the play. Rowe was supposed to be in the slot but he saw Eli Rogers uncovered out wide to Roethlisberger’s left.
“I’m like, man, no one’s on the outside,” Rowe said. “Forget it.”
He shifted out.
In that moment there were hundreds of possibilities the Patriots defense needed to account for. The most probable was that Roethlisberger would spike the ball. That’s what Rowe thought would happen until, as he moved to mark up on the outside, he saw Roethlisberger’s giant frame rise up and his arm start to shift back to throw.
“Everybody was in panic mode trying to get lined up and I see Big Ben fake it and I was like, ‘Oh, they are running the play,’ ” Rowe said.
He locked his eyes on Rogers, who ran a little slant. The Steelers options were decreasing exponentially with each hurried decision. Rowe felt he was right on Rogers’s hip as he came across the end zone, so he didn’t think Roethlisberger would throw the ball, but it was do or die and the quarterback didn’t have any other options left.
“I was like, ‘I need to break this up,’ ” Rowe said.
He got a hand on the ball. He knew someone else caught it, but wasn’t sure who. At first he thought it was one of the Steelers players, and that he’d been on the wrong end of a big play for the second time in a span of minutes.
But it was Harmon, saving the day. It wouldn’t have happened without Rowe’s help, Harmon said, joking about how other teammates, like Stephon Gilmore, have helped him come down with a couple interceptions he’s gotten the credit for in recent weeks.
“I’m going to get them boys one hell of a Christmas present,” Harmon said.