Twenty-seven thoughts on the Patriots’ 27-24 victory over the Steelers on Sunday:
1. No wonder Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been talking about this one and how much he was anticipating it since late November. It lived up to all of the hype, and then it somehow exceeded it. The Patriots defeated the Steelers, 27-24, in a showdown that was compelling and relentlessly entertaining for the first 57 minutes and downright unfathomable for the final three.
It’s impossible not to be inclined to hyperbole in the immediate aftermath of a game like this one. But for now, I’ll leave it at this: It might be the most thrilling Patriots victory in the last 10 years that doesn’t involve breaking the Atlanta Falcons’ hearts.
2. We’ll get to the early stuff later. It’s late stuff that matters, so let’s start it with that and try to process it all together. We start with 2 minutes and 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers, who played an impeccable game despite losing superstar receiver Antonio Brown in the second quarter, leading 24-19. The Patriots’ third-down defense had been wretched all day (Pittsburgh converted 10 of its first 13), but on third and 4 in this situation, they held JuJu Smith-Schuster a yard shy of a first down and the Steelers punted.
3. Time for Brady to do his thing. He entered Heinz Field Sunday afternoon with 50 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. He’d leave with 51. It took him all of 70 seconds to go 77 yards, in large part because Brady and Josh McDaniels unlocked Rob Gronkowski’s turbo mode. Gronk, who finished with 9 catches for 168 yards, had three straight catches on the drive, two for more than 20 yards.
4. After Dion Lewis, underutilized all day, ran it in from 8 yards out, Gronk also converted the 2-point conversion, punctuating it with a point and laugh at the defensive back he overwhelmed.
5. It looked like the Patriots had stolen one while making it five straight wins against the Steelers, an alleged rival who somehow can never win the biggest matchups. And they had stolen it. But the heist was delayed when Smith-Schuster caught a pass, bolted down the sideline and bobbed and weaves his way to the 10-yard line, a 69-yard catch. The Steelers appeared on the verge of stealing the victory back.
6. For a moment, they did, when Jesse James caught a 10-yard pass and thumped the ball down in the end zone, just past the goal line, for what appeared to be the winning touchdown. There was a brief delay when it appeared the officials were trying to determine if his knee was down before he got to the end zone.
7. But for Steelers fans, it turned out to be even crueler than that. James’s catch was ruled that it was not catch, apparently because the ball wobbled when he hit the turf. I don’t think officials know what a catch is at this point. But James’s looked like one to me.
8. The Steelers had one more shot at winning it, and Roethlisberger tried the old Dan Marino fake-spike move. But Eric Rowe, who whiffed on Smith-Schuster during his crazy catch-and-run, saved the day, deflected the pass into the hands of Duron Harmon, who continued his knack for late-game interceptions.
9. The Patriots escaped with an 11-3 record, the inside track on the top seed in the AFC playoffs, their ninth straight AFC East title, and another reminder to the Steelers that they have their number even when it looks like they don’t. Tomlin was right to look forward to this one. But is he ever going to dread reliving it.
10. OK, some other thoughts from the first 47 minutes: This game was the full Brandin Cooks experience: a 43-yard catch on the Patriots’ first possession, a 4-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, and a 37-yard bomb in the fourth quarter called back because he ran out of bounds on the route. He’s really good, with brief moments of exasperation mixed in.
11. As the game unfolded and took shape, it started looking like the team that could create the first turnover would have a huge advantage in ultimately emerging with a win. The turnover never came for the Patriots, while the Steelers got theirs at an especially opportune time.
12. With the Patriots facing third and 2 from their own 33 and less than 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Brady’s pass intended for James White was picked off by Vince Williams, who took it to the New England 22.
13. Five plays later, Le’Veon Bell, who seems to able to will himself invisible to tacklers, ran it in from 3 yards out. Rather than the Patriots marching down to the take the lead, the Steelers went up, 24-16.
14. It was not a good throw by Brady, but the decision was somewhat understandable. White did look like he was about to get open. The problem was that Brady had a Steelers pass rusher wrapped around his ankles and couldn’t get any zip on the ball. This was his fourth straight game with an interception. That might be troubling if his final scene wasn’t vintage Brady.
15. Chris Boswell’s 51-yard field goal in the second quarter not only put the Steelers up 10-7, it gave them their first lead in their last five games against the Patriots. The last time they’d held an edge was when the iconic Mewelde Moore scored on a 5-yard pass to put the Steelers up 7-0 on October 30, 2011 en route to a 25-17 win. That also happened to be the last time the Steelers beat the Patriots.
16. It seemed at the time that the biggest play of the game was an incomplete pass two minutes into the second quarter. That’s when all-world receiver Antonio Brown, who is basically John Stallworth and Lynn Swann melded into one unstoppable receiver, suffered a lower leg injury when he collided with Rowe and Harmon in the end zone.
17. Brown, who collected his 100th catch of the season earlier, the fifth straight year he’s hit the milestone, had to be helped off the field, and headed to the locker room after a brief stopover at the medical tent. There aren’t many more valuable players in the league. I should probably stop caterwauling about the Patriots’ injuries for now.
18. But the Steelers did a remarkable job of overcoming it. In their first full series without Brown, the Steelers put together the longest touchdown drive of the season against the Patriots (in terms of time, not yardage). The Steelers converted four third-downs and Roethlisberger connected with four different receivers, culminating with Martavis Bryant’s 4-yard, one-handed touchdown catch. It capped an 15-play, 78-yard drive that took 8 minutes and 39 seconds off the clock and left the Patriots with just 20 useless seconds before halftime.
19. Can’t recall ever seeing a television ad for Brady’s “TB12 Method” book until halftime on the CBS broadcast. The BR7 Method worked a little more effectively in the first half, though I don’t think any of us want to know what that actually would entail.
20. Roethlisberger was 15 of 19 for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Brady was 10 of 13 for 139 yards and no touchdowns, with Rex Burkhead scoring the first touchdown on a 1-yard run to punctuate the first drive. Burkhead later left with a knee injury.
21. Genuinely enjoy Tony Romo’s analysis. The hype is real. But I wonder sometimes whether he uses information he has gathered in meetings with coaches and players as the basis for his much-acclaimed accurate predictions. He predicted a couple of times that the Steelers defense would play man-to-man defense, an unusual strategy for them through the years.
22. Lo and behold, they went to man coverage not long after his suggestion. The old quarterback has an uncanny knack for identifying what a team is trying to do from play to play. But I suspect he’s sometimes been told what a team will try to do before he predicts it.
23. He did nail his prediction on one of the biggest plays of the game to the point it occurred, a Patriots fourth and 1 on the first possession of the second half. Romo quickly identified Gronkowski on the field, circled him on the telestrator, and said, “Uh oh, he’s got Gronk on the seal.” Brady saw the same think he did and hit Gronk on a slant pattern for 11 yards. Impressive all around, from the quarterback in the booth to the quarterback on the field.
24. Great to see Ryan Shazier in attendance and taking in the game from a luxury box. There hasn’t been much information about the injured Steeler’s long-term prognosis since suffering a spinal injury on Monday Night Football two weeks ago. Hopefully that’s a reassuring indication that his days will gradually get better.
25. The big gainer on the Patriots’ path to the end zone on their first possession was Brady’s 43-yard downfield dagger to Brandin Cooks. It wasn’t quite the bombs-away pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn in the 1996 AFC Divisional Round game, but the message was similar. We’re going to take our shots, so you’d better get used to it.
26. Deion Branch used to make those kind of plays against one beleaguered Steelers defensive back or another for years.
27. The NFL can be pretty gross nowadays. But this one was a reminder of professional football at its appealing best. Bring us all a Patriots-Steelers rematch in January, please.