PITTSBURGH – You could see the look of anguish on his face during his postgame press conference when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked about all of his team’s missed opportunities.
Against a team like the Patriots, when you are minus your starting quarterback, you have to capitalize on all the breaks and chances to win the game that the opponent gives you. Unfinished drives, turnovers, missed field goals, conservative offensive play calling, all of that added up to a 27-16 win by the Patriots on Sunday at Heinz Field. Great performances by LeVeon Bell, Antonio Brown and the Steeler defense in general could have been enough to upset the slightly favored Patriots, but in the end Tom Brady and the Patriot defense made just a few more plays than the Steelers did.
In a game which could have playoff seeding considerations in December, the Patriots scooted to a 14-0 lead (despite a lost fumble by Chris Hogan on the first offensive play of the game for the Patriots) and looked nearly invincible in doing so. Brady shook off the Hogan fumble and led the Patriots on touchdown drives of 80 and 74 yards on 13 and 11 plays respectively. Brady hit James White on a screen pass for a 19-yard touchdown, then LeGarrette Blount scored on three-yard run for the two-touchdown lead. On both drives, Brady and his receivers were clicking; he hit ten out of his first eleven passes and the Steeler defense was unable to stop him.
The Patriot defense stifled the Steeler offense on their first three possessions, allowing only one first down, a 25-yard pass from backup quarterback Landry Jones to Brown for 25 yards. Otherwise, Jones looked every bit like a backup, while Ben Roethlisberger looked on helplessly from the Pittsburgh bench.
The game changed on Pittsburgh’s fourth offensive possession. On second and ten from his own 29, Jones play faked to Bell, dropped back and lofted a perfect deep right sideline toss to Brown, who got behind Malcolm Butler, the play good for 51 yards. Three plays later, Jones found Darius Heyward-Bey in the left corner of the end zone, and Heyward-Bey beat Eric Rowe to the ball for a 14-yard scoring toss.
The Steelers spent the rest of the second quarter driving the ball very well, with Bell getting most of the touches. The next drive was a short one thanks to a 25-yard shank punt by Ryan Allen. But seven plays later, Chris Boswell pushed a 42-yard field goal attempt wide right (sound familiar?). The next drive went 10 plays for 66 yards with Boswell nailing a 32-yard field goal to make it 14-10 Patriots at the half.
The Patriot offense, clicking so wonderfully in the first quarter, had stalled. Their last two possessions of the half ended in drops. Brandon Bolden had a perfect toss from Brady out of the right flat with no one near him on third and 8, but he whiffed on the catch. The next drive ended with a drop by Julian Edelman on third and three at the 50, but a declined holding call on Shaq Mason would have nullified the play if he had caught it.
Featuring Bell and not Brown, the Steelers were able to pull to within 14-13 in the third quarter. The Patriots then started featuring their star running back, and Blount responded with a terrific game. Blount ran three times for 37 yards, setting up a nice seam pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski for 26 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots had a 20-13 lead, but Stephen Gostkowski missed still another extra point, pushing it wide right. Familiar.
Pittsburgh would respond with a 12-play, 52-yard drive that ended with a Boswell 44-yard field goal. But Brady brought the Patriots right back, hitting Gronkowski again in the seam for 37 yards, and Blount finishing it off with a five-yard touchdown.
Pittsburgh spent the rest of the game squandering opportunities to get back into the game. Edelman fumbled away a punt after the offense went three and out, but Boswell missed a 54-yard field goal on fourth and three, leaving Steeler fans to wonder why Tomlin didn’t go for it on fourth and three at the Patriot 36 down eleven points. The next drive saw the Steelers punt on third and 13 from their own 17, but with 5:19 left, Steeler fans might again have wanted Tomlin to go for it, though the decision to punt here was sound.
The last Steeler drive was rife with confusion and frittering away precious time. Their final play of the night took 44 seconds to run with the Steelers out of timeouts as confusion reigned. Jones kept repositioning receivers on fourth down, but the play resulted in Jones throwing behind Heyward-Bey for an incompletion.
Brady finished 19 of 26 for 222 yards, two touchdowns and a 124.2 rating. Blount had 127 yards rushing on 24 carries and a 5.3 average, scoring two touchdowns. Edelman led the Patriots with nine catches, Gronkowski had 93 receiving yards. Brady threw no interceptions, but the Patriots suffered two lost fumbles.
The Patriots defense allowed 375 yards, far too much against Roethlisberger’s backup. Jones finished 29 of 47 passing for 281 yards. He had one interception, an end zone pick by Butler on a badly thrown pass to Brown, and finished with a rating of 76.6. Bell had 81 yards on 21 carries and a 3.9 average, and proved to be incredibly hard to tackle on several occasions. Bell also had the most pass catches with ten, Brown had the most yardage with 106 yards.
The Patriots get to exact revenge on their only loss of the season next week at Buffalo, which lost on Sunday at Miami. LeSean McCoy will not be at one hundred percent, if he plays at all. Having Brady at the helm instead of Jacoby Brissett will make quite a difference, as if that is even worth mentioning.
The Patriots can at least rest easy and know that they own the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh. The Steelers and Patriots are frequently listed as the top two teams in the conference this year. Brady would have preferred to win today over Big Ben instead of Little Landry. But Brady will take the win, no matter what he says publicly about his opponent.
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