Better to be lucky than good? The Patriots are both

The overturning of a potential go-ahead touchdown by Steelers tight end Jesse James was correct according to the NFL rule book.
The overturning of a potential go-ahead touchdown by Steelers tight end Jesse James was correct according to the NFL rule book.Jim Davis/Globe staff/Globe Staff

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This is why those in other NFL locales both envy and despise the Patriots. Through a combination of preparation, execution, and favorable fortune, the Patriots usually find a way to fall on the right side of football fate. While their opponents fall apart under pressure, things fall into place for the denizens of Fort Foxborough.

The Patriots’ memorable and controversial 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field epitomized the Patriots dynasty, or as the rest of the NFL calls it, the Patriot Reign of Terror. The maxim goes that it’s better to be lucky than good. Why settle for one? The Patriots are both. With home-field advantage in the AFC hanging in the balance, the Patriots were very good and a bit lucky late in the fourth quarter against one of their favorite football foils.

The folks in Pittsburgh can curse the officials and the gridiron gods all they want, but the Patriots won because they deserved to win. Being on the receiving end of good fortune is one thing, but being able to capitalize on it is another entirely. No team does that better than the Patriots, and that’s not luck. There are 17 consecutive seasons of evidence proving that.


However, even the most ardent Patriotologist has to admit that fortune has been a traveling companion for the Patriots during these halcyon days. You don’t find the greatest quarterback of all time in the sixth round of the draft without a bit of luck. The entire Patriots dynasty was launched on the most favorable replay interpretation in league history — the Tuck Rule — turning a dooming Tom Brady fumble against the Oakland Raiders in 2002 into the most revered incompletion in NFL history.


The Patriots enjoyed fortuitous plays in crunch time against the sorrowful Steelers. They didn’t waste them. A game that was the best of times for the Patriots and the worst of times for the Steelers was a tale of two tips.

No one is talking about the inconsistent and incomprehensible catch rule that negated the apparent winning touchdown catch by Steelers tight end Jesse James if Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis corrals a tipped Brady pass on the first play of New England’s go-ahead drive. Davis let the pass slip through his grasp with 2:01 left. The Patriots grabbed the lead 65 seconds later.

Conversely, the Patriots (11-3) seized their chance and the inside track to the AFC’s top seed. Two plays after James’s TD was correctly overturned by video replay, Patriots safety Duron Harmon secured the game-sealing interception after Eric Rowe deflected an ill-advised Ben Roethlisberger pass on a fiasco of a fake spike play.

Pittsburgh could have just spiked the ball on third and goal from the Patriots 7 to set up a tying chip-shot field goal. Instead, we’re left to wonder who really ordered the code red to run a shambolic play. Roethlisberger said he wanted to spike the ball, but the coaching staff instructed him to run a play. Big Ben sure looked comfortable running the play, especially when he tapped his helmet pre-snap to signal to Eli Rogers to run the slant route.

Either way, Roethlisberger ended up the goat as he once again lost to the G.O.A.T.


Let’s be honest, all people are going to remember about this game is James’s 10-yard touchdown catch with 28 seconds left that vanished under video review. James didn’t “survive the ground” and the Patriots survived with a win. It was the most fortuitous replay ruling for the Patriots since the Tuck Rule.

I could write an entire column about the NFL’s odious, esoteric, and counterintuitive catch rule. This bit of rule book red tape has created a disconnect between what fans, players, and coaches consider a catch and what the NFL classifies as a catch. The rule was good for the Patriots, but it’s not good for football.

Given the anfractuous nature of the rule, the Steelers have reason to feel wronged. But referee Tony Corrente and NFL senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron absolutely got the replay ruling right by the letter of the law.

Quit crying into those Terrible Towels, Steelers fans. It was the correct call.

While it seems as if the Patriots get all the breaks, they’ve been on the wrong end of rules interpretations too. The illegal pushing penalty in 2013 vs. the New York Jets that led to a field goal retry and the Jets’ overtime winner comes to mind. Belichick will go to his grave believing that the Champ Bailey non-touchback ruling following his fumble on a 100-yard interception return in the Patriots’ 2005 season playoff loss to Bailey’s Broncos was a travesty. Let’s not even discuss the NFL’s creative interpretation of football air pressure regulations.


Every football game has a Butterfly Effect, or with the Patriots a Belichick Effect. This one was no different.

It’s attention to detail, inculcated by their coach, that makes the Patriots great; all the little things they do well make a big difference. The Patriots created their own luck on Roethlisberger’s game-deciding gaffe. On second and goal from the 10, Roethlisberger threw a crossing route to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was trying to race out of bounds. Malcolm Butler kept him in bounds and kept the clock running.

That precipitated the Steelers’ frantic and fateful fake spike debacle. In the Monday afterglow, Belichick called Butler’s play “key.”

“Situational football is so critical at this time of year, and fortunately we were able to make the plays we needed to make,” said Belichick.

Honestly, the pure luck the Patriots enjoyed Sunday was Pittsburgh’s best player, incomparable and almost uncoverable wide receiver Antonio Brown, getting knocked out of the game with a partially torn calf muscle in the first half. Injuries are standard in the NFL, but the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Steelers.

Maybe, Brown’s injury gives the Steelers hope for next time and an excuse to rationalize losing a game they controlled.

If there is a playoff sequel to this scintillating contest, as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin predicted there would be in his infamous interview with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” that aired on Nov. 26, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers not entering it psychologically scarred. They’ll be chewing those Terrible Towels like they’re late UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian.


The Patriots don’t need such talismans. Fortune rewards their efforts.

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Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.