PITTSBURGH — The Patriots’ last-minute thriller of a win against the Steelers on Sunday will go down as one of the best regular-season games in franchise history.
It doesn’t top the unbelievable finishes of the team’s last two Super Bowl wins, though coach Bill Belichick mentioned on a Monday conference call that the Steelers game did remind him of Super Bowl XLIX.
“It was a similar ending to the Seattle game,” Belichick said.
The most obvious similarity was the game-clinching interception in the end zone — this time by Duron Harmon, famously by Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl XLIX.
There was also redemption. Butler thought he’d cost the Patriots the Super Bowl when he gave up a 33-yard completion to Jermaine Kearse, who made an incredible catch two plays before the interception. On Sunday, it was Eric Rowe, who tipped the ball for Harmon to intercept on a fake spike play. Rowe was in coverage on JuJu Smith-Schuster when the rookie gained 69 yards on a catch-and-run to open the Steelers’ final drive.
There was also Butler’s tackle of Darrius Heyward-Bey that kept the clock running and the Steelers out of the end zone on second and 10 from the 10-yard line with 28 seconds left. Belichick pointed out that the tackle happened near the sideline, forcing the Steelers to take more time to reset and contributing to a sense of panic. The Steelers used up 19 seconds on that one play.
In Super Bowl XLIX, Dont’a Hightower made a critical stop of Marshawn Lynch on first and 5 from the 5-yard line, keeping the Seahawks out of the end zone. That one play bled the clock from 1:06 left to 26 seconds, as the Seattle sideline was enveloped in confusion while the Patriots refused to call time out.
“The difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter, maybe call it from the second half of the fourth quarter on — the last seven, eight minutes — a change in any one of those plays could have affected the outcome of the game,” Belichick said. “So, that just to me showed how competitive the game was and how critical every single little thing is — each play, each player, each call, each situation.”
One difference between Super Bowl XLIX and Sunday’s game, as Belichick pointed out, was that the Seahawks were trailing by 4 points while the Steelers were down by just 3. That’s what made the preparation for the fake spike so important, since it was a reasonable expectation that the Steelers could clock it and play for overtime.
“It’s just the awareness of those two plays — the spike and the fake spike,” Belichick said. “As a spike, we really can’t do anything about that play, but we can play the fake spike if they throw it. That’s what we try to do, is defend what really can hurt us, which is the fake spike play.”
The rest is history, which has a funny way of repeating itself.
No update on Burkhead
Belichick said he had no update on running back Rex Burkhead, who left Sunday’s game in the third quarter with a knee injury and was quickly declared out. Multiple reports state Burkhead did not tear his ACL, but it’s unclear whether he will miss time.
“We’ll see how it goes with Rex,” Belichick said. “I’m not sure exactly what the extent of his injury is. We’ll see how that goes. I think at this point all of our players have been told and need to know that they need to be ready to go every week.”
Running back Mike Gillislee has been a healthy scratch since Week 8. Gillislee said last week that the string of inactives has been frustrating, but he’s patiently waiting his turn.
“Well, Mike’s very consistent,” Belichick said. “He works hard all of the time.”
The phrase “catch radius,” especially when applied to Rob Gronkowski, conjures the image of the 6-foot-6-inch tight end leaping, long arms outstretched, for a ball thrown high above his head.
But Sunday, Gronkowski made an impressive catch during the Patriots’ last scoring drive where he pulled in a ball that was coming at him below the knees. The 17-yard gain was the tight end’s third straight reception on the drive and set up a touchdown on the next play.
“It’s really impressive and I’d say it’s one of the most impressive things that he does, is not going to the ground on a lot of those catches, that he can make those catches around his ankles and still continue to run and gain extra yards,” Belichick said.
“On that one I think he did go down and Sean Davis was there to make the tackle after he caught it anyway, but just in general on those catches Rob has a lot of those plays where for a tall, linear type of player like he is to go down and be able to get those balls is difficult, but I think it’s even more impressive when he goes down and catches them below his knees and continues to pull the ball in and continues to run and keeps his balance.”
Patriots-Steelers registered as the highest-rated NFL game of the season, drawing a 17.0 household rating for CBS. The previous season high was 14.3, for the Cowboys-Broncos game on Fox on Sept. 17. Sunday’s thriller in Pittsburgh was CBS’s highest-rated NFL game since Week 10 of the 2015 season . . . It rained at Heinz Field for most of the game Sunday, but Belichick had no problem with the field conditions. “I thought the field was in great shape,” he said. “It was a plush field. Good, thick grass.”