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Best Of Social Media: Reaction To Rob Gronkowski Retirement From Football

Robert Alvarez
March 25, 2019 at 6:00 pm ET

On Sunday night, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski formally announced over Instagram that he will be retiring from the NFL after nine professional seasons.

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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

A post shared by Rob Gronkowski (@gronk) on

Since entering the league as the 42nd overall pick in 2010, Gronk compiled
521 catches for 7,861 yards with 79 touchdowns during his time in Foxborough.

Gronk earned five Pro Bowl selections over his career but dealt with
multiple back surgeries, a twice-broken arm and a torn ACL.

Despite the injuries, Gronk put together a career that all but assures him a place in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Check out all the best reactions from social media to the news below.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BvaGsDcHQ7_/
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Icon. #TheGronk

A post shared by Julian Edelman (@edelman11) on

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https://twitter.com/gregolsen88/status/1109949544727494657?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1109949544727494657&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nbcsports.com%2Fboston%2Fpatriots%2Ftom-brady-react-rob-gronkowski-retirement
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New England Patriots News 3-10, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
March 10, 2019 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here is your Sunday Patriots news 03-10 and AFC East Notes.

Quick Hitters:

Van Noy Defense – As if Van Noy needed anything else to endear himself to the fan base. After Colts TE Eric Ebron took a veiled shot at the Patriots when he tweeted  “nobody wanna do that Patriot way bull- #COLTure.” But Van Noy quickly answered that by tweeting a picture of two rings with a winking emoticon.

Gronk Selling Condo: On a day with some exciting trade news, one item that could have people thinking worst case scenarios was the news that Rob Gronkowski is selling his Boston seaport condo. Gronk’s luxury condo located at 21 Wormwood St. located on the waterfront can be yours for a cool $2,375,000. Does this mean the big guy is retiring? Not so fast. While it could be just that, it should be noted that he bought the place just a few years ago for $1.8 million. Just another sound financial investment.

Jamie Collins redux? With the news that the Cleveland Browns were parting ways with linebacker Jamie Collins, many fans and media members were wondering about a reunion for the two. As we see it here, that ship has sailed and he won’t be returning to New England. We don’t see it as a need as the LBer position isn’t in bad shape.

Et Tu Amendola: Danny Amendola was released by the Dolphins on Friday. The cost-cutting move is expected to clear a salary-cap space that Miami may use to entice Trey Flowers to South Florida. Now many are hoping for a reunion with Amendola and the Patriots.

Well, no one has been a bigger Amendola supporter than we’ve been on these pages. While we’d love to see him back in Foxboro this spring, the situation may preclude that from happening. The team needs to get younger at the position and with the cupboard bare, they may play a waiting game to see how the rest of FA/Draft plays out before making a decision. By then, I’d expect Amendola to be signed elsewhere.

Brown Has His Cake, But Won’t Share it With Buffalo: Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown may have effectively forced his way out of Pittsburgh by demanding a trade, and now is stipulating where he won’t go. The Steelers and Bills had a deal supposedly agreed to in principle but Brown put the kibosh on it, stating he won’t go to Buffalo.  

After a few tweets and videos that may have effectively ruined whatever compensation, the Steelers could have gotten for him, Brown now halted a trade. One has to wonder if he may paint himself into a corner where the Steelers (and rightfully so), give him the option to return to the team or sit out the season.

Bennett Trade, One The Team Couldn’t Bypass:

The Philadelphia Eagles are trading DL Michael Bennett and their 7th Round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Patriots for New England’s 5th round pick in 2020. In terms of compensation, the deal is a steal. Bennett is still a very productive player and even at 33 logged more sacks (9) and QB hits (30) than anyone on New England and fourth most (QB hits) in the league.  

Bennett’s contract isn’t going to break the bank either. He’s due $7.2 million in salary and game day bonuses and $8 million in 2020. The Patriots tried to swing a deal with the Seahawks to get Bennett last spring, but the Eagles had pounced first and he was dealt to Philadephia.

Does this mean that the team is washing their hands of Trey Flowers in free agency? Not necessarily. We’ve been of the mind here that Flowers’ chances of resigning here have been slim. Especially now with so many of the edge rushers being tagged by their respective teams. But that doesn’t mean the team won’t try to retain Flowers. Bennett’s trade was something that just popped up on the radar that was too good to pass up for a player that they tried to bring in last spring.

He wasn’t brought in as a replacement for Flowers, although it could seem like that if indeed he does walk in free agency. But the thought of watching the two on the field together in the Pats defense is an exciting one. Will it happen? Stay tuned.

Brady Extension Coming?

We heard thru someone we know (and someone who would know) that a contract extension for Tom Brady was going to be done soon and the team would lock him up for another three years, that would take him to the age 45 limit that he said he envisioned.  

The guys on “Patriots Unfiltered”, what used to be known as PFW in Progress on the Patriots team website invited me on the show on Thursday and we spoke about it for a few minutes. It can be heard here:

Free Agency “Legal Tampering” Season Is Here:

Now is when things get interesting. The Patriots still have a slew of free agents to either resign or let walk including both kickers and still look for ways to improve the team.  So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at certain positions and see who the team has out there and who they could bring in.

Interior Defensive Line:  With both Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton unrestricted free agents, there is certainly a case to be made that neither returns. However, if I had to pick one… I’d go with Brown as being the one player closer to return, but not by much. Like a 52-48 ratio.  

There are some intriguing free agents out there, Sheldon Richardson (Vikings), Brandon Mebane (Chargers), Johnathan Hankins (Raiders), but I don’t see the Patriots laying out the money that those guys would draw in free agency. On our 4th and 2 podcast, I mentioned Jets FA Mike Pennel as a guy the Patriots may target. A huge, 6’4, 330, two-gapping space eater, the Patriots are one of the few teams that still covet those type of players. Not a sexy signing, but one that will pay dividends in the season.

Tight End: Will he or won’t he? If Rob Gronkowski retires, it will free up $11.6 million in cap space, and the position becomes of critical need. if he doesn’t, it is still a position in dire need of young(er) blood. They currently have Gronkowski, Jacob Hollister, Ryan Izzo, and the sleeper Stephen Anderson under contract. Hollister has looked good but can’t stay on the field. Izzo was an intriguing kid and Anderson has unlocked potential.

With the release of Dwayne Allen, the team needs an injection of talent and youth. One guy who’ll be the perfect #2 TE with the team, (especially in the two-TE sets) is Pittsburgh’s, Jesse James. He’s been a favorite here to pick up all winter. He’s big  (6’7, 260), is a very good blocker and productive as a receiver. He’s only 25 and has 112 catches in three seasons being the #4 or lower target.

Wide Receiver: With a slew of free agents (Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson), and only Julian Edelman and untested Braxton Berrios coming back, adding youth at WR is also critical. Will they bring back any of those three? I could see Patterson and maybe one or the other to return but they need some talent to help Edelman and Brady in 2019.

Free agents rumored to be linked to the Patriots include Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley, Randall Cobb, Jamison Crowder, Eli Rogers,  and Danny Amendola. As much as we’d love to see Tate in this offense as well as Humphries, the money those two would be looking at may be prohibitive.

Look for the Patriots to make a move on Jamison Crowder. That still would be a difficult proposition, however, because even though he’s coming off an ankle injury that forced him to miss seven games, he’s still expected to fetch in the neighborhood of $8-10 million dollars in free agency. The draft, which the Patriots have struggled to find suitable wide receivers, may end up being the answer here.

Eastbound and Down AFC East Notes:

Beane Says Brown Trade to Bills “Didn’t Make Sense”:

The Buffalo Bills inquired about and were close to making a trade for disgruntled Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown earlier this week. Then Brown put any hopes of that deal materializing by stating that he wouldn’t commit to showing up if the trade went thru. In the end, Bills GM Brandon Beane took the high road and in a statement. “We had positive discussions, but ultimately it didn’t make sense for either side. As great a player as Antonio Brown is, we have moved on and our focus is on free agency.”

The trade for Brown would have made total sense, from a football perspective for the Bills. They invested heavily into a young QB last year in Josh Allen. But he had a dearth of viable weapons to throw to plus an aging RB in LeSean McCoy. It would have made less sense, as it will for any other team since no one knows if Brown will tow the line in his next assignment.

As we mentioned above, Brown is painting himself into a corner, trying to force a trade to where he wants to go. For the Bills, they’ll approach free agency with about $80 million and the opportunity to sign lesser talented players but who will be more about the team than themselves.

Dolphins Clearing Cap Space, Release Three Veterans:

The Miami Dolphins have done a house cleaning in South Florida. By bringing in Brian Flores as the new head coach, he’s starting from scratch. Miami is expected to move on from QB Ryan Tannehill and that will be the first order of business for the new regime. But the team released three veteran players which will aid their salary cap situation.

Miami released wide receiver Danny Amendola, 33, in the move toward youth as well as DE Andre Branch and G Ted Larsen. The release of Amendola frees up $6 million and coupled with the other two vets gives Miami $22 million in cap space. Miami is also expected to decline the 5th-year option for WR Devante Parker making him a free agent this week. That will add another $9.4 million in cap space.

Amendola led Miami with 59 catches and 575 receiving yards in 2018. Now, Miami drafting in the first round with the 13th pick will have to decide whether to move up in the draft to get a QB they like, hope one falls to them in their spot, or wait until next year when the QB class is expected to be better. Free agency has the most intriguing name in Nick Foles, but the Jacksonville Jaguars released a slew of players adding $30 million to their salary cap and are expected to make a big push for the 30-year old QB.

Jets Have Money to Spend in Free Agency:

The New York Jets have nearly $100 million in salary cap space in 2019 and are in a position to make some big splashes in free agency. With that amount of money, they can front load some of those contracts to make the Jets the favorites to any team that they may be bidding against. However, they also have several (as many as 10) starting positions that need to be addressed.

New York is rumored to be in on the LeVeon Bell sweepstakes and signing the very talented running back would ease the growing pains on young QB Sam Darnold. On the flip side of the ball, the Jets are also expected to make a run at the very versatile and talented LB Anthony Barr who has spent the first five years of his career with the Vikings. He’d fill a great need for the Jets.

Barr is a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who has been a Pro Bowler for the past four years with the Vikings. He’s adept at stopping the run, dropping into coverage and rushing off the edge. The team needs help at wide receiver as well as at edge rusher besides Barr. The Jets can be big players this spring with a ton of cap space. Look for them to make a splash or three.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and myself from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news and game analysis.

Patriots  Week 15  Report Card, Patriots Beat Steelers 27-24

Steve Balestrieri
December 19, 2017 at 9:00 am ET

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you start but how you finish. Although the Steelers controlled the vast majority of this game with their offense dominating in terms of time of possession, it never really carried over to the scoreboard. Even when the Patriots were down by 8 points in the second half, you never had the feeling that they were out of this game and they were still only down by a single score.

The one thing we know about this team is that they are a resilient bunch and that if you’re going to beat them, you need to play a full 60 minutes. Pittsburgh controlled the majority of the game, but the last few minutes belonged to Tom Brady and company. Followed by a wild and wacky finish where there was a long pass play, a disallowed touchdown and an interception to seal the deal, it was a satisfying win that not only clinched the AFC East but put the Patriots back in control of the AFC with two games to play. Perfect? Far from it. Satisfying? You bet and the coaches will take it.

So we’ll go thru the positions after rewatching the tape and see what the grades say this week.

Quarterback: B

Tom Brady had a very good game considering the circumstances. His wide receiver corps was thinned even further with no Chris Hogan and then lost Rex Burkhead and James White during the game but he persevered.

Pittsburgh played much more man coverage in this game when they tried to sprinkle in some zone, Brady immediately hit Cooks with a 43-yard pass down the left side. They got good pressure on him all game long which made him uncomfortable in the pocket.

That pressure forced him into a bad interception in the third quarter with Vince Williams being the first Steeler to pick him in a dozen years. He nearly had another in the final two minutes on a tipped pass at the line.

But after that he was brilliant. Brady was 5-7 on throws of more than 20 yards in the air. So much for the dink-dunk myth or that his arm strength is failing. He realized that Pittsburgh still has no answer for Rob Gronkowski and they did what they always do to the Steeler secondary, they eviscerated it in the second half. On the key 4th and 1 play, Brady recognized the defense and signaled Gronkowski, who was one-on-one with Sean Davis. The result was an easy 10 yard gain, which led to a touchdown to Cooks.

Running Backs: C+

The Patriots didn’t run the ball very much in this one as they were mostly playing from behind this week. But when they did there was some hit and miss. Dion Lewis had 12 carries for 67 yards including the game-winning run from eight yards out that totally caught the Steelers off-guard after Gronk tortured them down the field. But he didn’t  seem to get enough work between the tackles.

Rex Burkhead went down with what looked like a serious knee injury but luckily that wasn’t the case. He had a nice touchdown run inside. James White went down during the game but was able to return.

What was surprising was how little production the backs had in the passing game. Lewis had one catch for 13 yards, White had two catches for eight although Brady overthrew him when he had a lot of open space and Burkhead had one catch for five. James Develin had an uncharacteristic drop but was mostly good in the running game opening up holes for the backs when they did run

Wide Receivers: C

The wide receivers weren’t a big factor in the game, part of that is on them, partly on the Pittsburgh secondary. Brandin Cooks had a 43-yard reception early and a nice touchdown in the back of the end zone but he ran a deep, double move pattern too close to the sideline. That allowed the defender to ride him out of bounds. That wiped out a huge gain on what was Brady’s best throw of the game.

Chris Hogan was out, Kenny Britt made an early contribution after just a few days on the team. He’ll be looked at more as the schedule plays out. Danny Amendola had just two catches on the day and Phillip Dorsett had just one. Not enough production

Tight Ends: A++

Rob Gronkowski came back from his one-week suspension and played like a man possessed, especially in the second half. Gronkowski finished with 9 catches for 168 yards, where 135 of them were after halftime. He was simply dominating the game.

Pittsburgh had no answer for him and they were simply outmatched by his strength and speed. It is one thing saying that you’re going to be physical with him, it is another thing entirely going out and doing it.

He owned the field on the final Patriots touchdown drive gaining 26 yards on back to back plays taking the Patriots from deep in their own end to the Steelers 25 yard line. Then showing incredible flexibility, (TB 12 Clinc?) he reached down to pluck a low Brady pass off the turf and rumbled for 17 more setting up Dion Lewis’ touchdown run. On that play, both he and Dwayne Allen put punishing blocks on the Steelers defensive line.

And he’ll still hear it in the film room, he dropped a touchdown that he’d normally make the catch on. But his overall play more than made up for that. As games go this was a dominating performance as you’ll see.

Offensive Line: B-

The offensive line had a mixed game, they were allowing too much pressure, once again Joe Thuney struggled, as did Shaq Mason in pass protection and they didn’t get the consistent push in the running game but it was good enough. As is the norm with them, when the chips were on the line, they held up really well. Nate Solder had one of his best games of the year. Did anyone hear T.J. Watt’s name once in the game? He’s been a disruptor for the Pittsburgh defense and Solder kept him far away from Brady all day. Nice bounce back type of game for Dante Scarnecchia’s crew after the Miami mess of a week ago.

Defensive Line: C

Trey Flowers was back and he made his presence felt getting some pressure in the passing game. But overall the pass rush is still an issue and it is a case of them “almost getting there” it seems. No Alan Branch this week and the Steelers ran at the interior early but the middle of the line, Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Ricky Jean-Francois did a pretty good job of gumming up the middle. Where the Steelers ran very effectively was on the edge. Both Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee were consistently washed out or pushed inside and Le’Veon Bell was eating them up on the outside.

Lee missed a sack that he should have had against Roethlisberger, he’s not as mobile as he used to be and Lee should have made that. The team dropped Flowers into the flat on a few passing plays and he was abused by Bell.

Linebackers: D

This is an area to watch moving forward and a possible Achilles Heel in January, especially with no Kyle Van Noy. Elandon Roberts, David Harris, and Marquis Flowers had games that won’t be pretty in the film room this week.

They were consistently blown up in the running game by the Steelers offensive line who once they got to the second level owned them. Roberts flew up into the wrong gap and had a handful of air on Bell’s touchdown run and looked lost there. Harris, whose specialty is the run game, was blown up quite a few times, too many.

Coverage isn’t their strong suit which is why the Steelers were successful on those shallow crosses. Matt Patricia tried blitzing them and they had an o-fer. Every time they blitzed Roethlisberger made them pay going a perfect 6-6 for 80 yards and a score.Ugly day again for the linebackers.

Secondary: B-

The secondary had its problems with the Pittsburgh speedy group of wide receivers. Overall the Steelers were 10-16 on third down which is very good, but the team stopped them on their final three attempts. When they’re having that kind of success, the secondary has to bear a lot of the burden but it goes hand-in-hand with the pass rush as well. Rewatching the film, Roethlisberger had so much time, the receivers had time to shake themselves open.

Stephon Gilmore had a rough day with Martavis Bryant who was giving him trouble with his combination of size and speed. Malcolm Butler didn’t have to cover Antonio Brown for long as he was injured, but made a great play tackling Heyward-Bey inbounds on the Steelers final drive keeping the clock moving… under the radar great play.

Eric Rowe made the tip on the final interception that Duron Harmon picked off. Don’t pay attention to that knucklehead on the radio. Harmon is a money player who is always around the ball. Devin McCourty and Pat Chung were solid as always. Jordan Richards? What in the wide world of sports was that attempt on the JuJu Schuster-Smith catch and run? That was singularly awful and nearly cost them the game. That’s a tackle he has to make and to whiff like that? Inexcusable.

The secondary as a whole deserves high marks for not falling for the fake spike. Roethlisberger threw that into triple coverage, something that been lost in the shuffle among the hysterical fan/media outrage over the James drop in the end zone.

Special Teams: B-

Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point but that was because of a rare snap miscue by Joe Cardona. Ryan Allen had to adjust and didn’t have a good hold, it forced Gostkowski’s timing off and he shanked it.
Allen had a net 47 yards on his punts and Gostkowski’s kickoffs consistently put the Steelers deep, behind the 20-25 yard line. Other than the one miscue, they were fine, but it could have been costly. Matthew Slater had a great play on a sliding downing of an Allen punt pinning the Steelers deep.

Coaches: B

Bill Belichick always preaches situational football, that’s why the Patriots pull out so many of these close games and opponents fail. No one bit on the fake spike, and the Steelers were unprepared for the final few plays after the James score was overturned. That is something the Patriots never have to worry about. Josh McDaniels’ crew couldn’t convert third downs again in the first half, but once he locked in on the Brady-Gronk connection, he rode it. Matt Patricia’s beat up crew on defense couldn’t get off the field on third down. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but they got the final three third downs including the final pick.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five Takeaways From The Patriots Win Over Pittsburgh

Ian Logue
December 18, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh came down to the wire and certainly had some tense moments but fortunately, the Patriots came away with a 27-24 win to clinch the AFC East and put them in control of the top seed in the AFC with two games to play.

Looking back at the victory, here are some thoughts after the Patriots improved to 11-3 on the season.

1) Without Van Noy, the defense continues to struggle – The Patriots were still without Kyle Van Noy on Sunday and it’s obvious that he’s been one of the key difference-makers who has allowed the team to survive the loss of Dont’a Hightower and still be relatively successful.  The only problem is, New England’s defense has struggled in his absence, which was evident last weekend in Miami and again on Sunday.

The Steelers piled up 143-yards running the football, with the Patriots struggling to stop a Steelers’ team that converted 10-of-16 (63%) on third down and had difficulty at times getting them off the field.  With Pittsburgh having success sustaining drives, it allowed them to control the clock and keep Tom Brady and the offense on the sideline as the Steelers held the ball for 19:53 in the first half, compared to just 10:07 for the Patriots.

The veteran linebacker was downgraded to out prior to Sunday’s game, with Van Noy having last played back on December 3rd during New England’s win over the Bills in Buffalo.  Coming into Sunday’s game he was second on the team in tackles with 73, as well as second in sacks with 5.5.

Fortunately, on Sunday the Patriots survived without him but it’s clear that heading into the final two games and into the postseason, they’re certainly going to be much better off if he’s able to come back healthy.

2) Patriots are lucky the 69-yard play they gave up at the end of the game didn’t cost them – Staying on the subject of the defense, there were definitely some rough moments, including one key miscue at the end of the game that nearly cost them.

The play came following New England’s go-ahead touchdown in the final moments, which looking back at how it unfolded, it’s safe to say that it will most definitely be a point of emphasis in the film room this week.

Clinging to a 3-point lead, the Steelers had 0:52 left to work with, which was still a fair amount of time to get from their own 21-yard line into field goal range to potentially force overtime. But it felt like, at the time, the Patriots finally had the momentum and were back in control of the game at that point.  The only thing they needed was for their defense to put together one final stop and close the game out.

Instead, their beleaguered group gave it all back and then some in just one play.  On the snap, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster came across the middle and beat Eric Rowe, with Ben Roethlisberger hitting him in stride as he came across.  From there, Smith-Schuster made a mad dash toward the sideline and safety Devin McCourty came flying in toward him to try and help Rowe out and seemingly had the angle he needed to push him out of bounds.  The only problem was, Jordan Richards was locked up with Le’Veon Bell near the sideline.  Richards dove at Smith-Schuster as he ran past, and unfortunately, he took McCourty out of the play, leaving Rowe having to continue chasing after him.

By the time Duron Harmon wrapped him up, Smith-Schuster was at New England’s 10-yard line and the Steelers seemingly had just the play they needed to at least force overtime.

You could see the frustration on the face of Tom Brady after the play, who isn’t exactly a stranger to being on the wrong end of those situations given some of the losses he’s been through.  However, fortunately, Harmon came up with the play they needed to put the game away, and New England finds themselves right where they want to be heading into the final weeks of the 2017 regular season.


There was no stopping Gronkowski on Sunday.

3) Gronkowski reminded everyone what a difference-maker he is – Having Rob Gronkowski back in action on Sunday was obviously huge, and watching him take over the game in the fourth quarter was certainly impressive.

Gronkowski hauled in 9 catches for 168 yards during the victory, including 3 receptions for 69 yards on the team’s game-winning drive, which he polished off with a 2-point conversion following Dion Lewis’ 8-yard touchdown.

He was in the zone all afternoon, making some terrific catches and his performance over the final two minutes was just ridiculous.  On his first reception, he picked up 26-yards after beating safety Sean Davis on a post coming across from the left side of the field just before the two-minute warning.

They went right back to a similar route on the next play, picking up another 26-yards after Gronkowski got behind Davis again, with Brady hitting the veteran tight end in stride between two defenders.  Gronkowski took a big shot from safety Mike Mitchell, who hit him low and wrapped him up for the tackle. But it didn’t affect him as Gronkowski was fired up at that point, flexing and clearly on a mission after back-to-back 26-yard receptions.

But as if that wasn’t enough, the catch he made on the ensuing play was just incredible.  After lining up again in the left slot, Gronkowski ran a route across the middle and Brady, who was under pressure by Pittsburgh’s defense on that play, managed to slide away and while moving to his left fired the football to Gronkowski, but the throw was slightly off target and low, reaching him mere inches from the ground.  However, Gronkowski managed to reach down and snatch the football just above the turf, pulling it into his body before somersaulting and rising to his feet.

At that point, you could see in his eyes that there was no stopping him.  Lewis would score on the next play, and Gronkowski slipped past the defender and made a twisting leaping grab for the two-point conversion.  It capped an incredible afternoon after spending the previous week as a spectator thanks to his suspension.  He admitted after the game, he was happy to be back.

“I missed the boys,” said Gronkowski of his teammates.  “They are always grinding every single week. These guys are my teammates and they are great to be around. I definitely miss them and it’s great to be back.”

And after what we saw on Sunday, they were clearly lucky to have him.

4) Expect a rule change again this offseason thanks to the James play – As we know, the NFL isn’t a fan of their own rules when it works in favor of the Patriots, and the controversial play at the end of regulation involving Steelers’ tight end Jesse James’ apparent touchdown will likely spark a discussion with the competition committee during this next offseason.

After what initially looked like a 10-yard touchdown reception that would have sealed the game, the officials reviewed the play and ultimately overturned it after ruling that James didn’t control the ball all the way to the ground.  Looking back at the film, James caught the football above his head and then twisted his body back toward the end zone, while reaching the ball across the goal line.  The only problem was, as his body and the ball hit the ground, James lost his grip on the football.

According to referee Tony Corrente, they ruled that James “just didn’t survive to the ground.”

“In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” Corrente told the field reporter after the game.  “In this case, [James] had control of the football but he was going to the ground.  As he hit the ball, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that’s the end of it at that point.”

That play obviously changed everything because it left the door open for Harmon’s interception, which we’ll get to next.


Roethlisberger and Tomlin didn’t appear to be on the same page Sunday.

5) Tomlin and Roethlisberger were clearly not on the same page – For two people who have worked together as long as they have, it sounds like Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin were definitely not on the same page at the end of Sunday’s game.

Following Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 3-yard reception with 20 seconds left to play, Malcolm Butler tackled him in bounds, which had the game clock running.  Initially, Roethlisberger brought everyone up to the line and was ready to spike the ball to stop the clock, but he claims “the sideline” didn’t want him too, which lead to some confusion.

“It wasn’t a fake spike,” Roethlisberger told reporters after the game. “I was yelling ‘clock it’ because I felt like that was the thing to do,  clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it. Don’t clock it.’ Well, at that time, everyone thinks it’s clocked so you don’t have any time to get everyone lined up.”

Roethlisberger snapped the ball with 0:09 left on the clock and it was obvious there were some players who weren’t quite sure what was happening.  The entire left side of the field saw his receivers standing around, while Eli Rogers continued his route into three Patriots’ defenders.

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/942549852595949568

“Eli (Rogers) kinda ran a quick slant in there and at that time you’ve just got to try to make a big play,” said Roethlisberger.  “I didn’t make a good enough throw.”

Roethlisberger did go through the act of faking like he was going to spike it, and then looked at Rogers and double-clutched the throw, which allowed Rowe just the amount of time he needed to close and dive out in front, knocking the ball away.  Harmon alertly picked off the football, and just like that, you could hear the collective gasp from everyone on hand at Heinz Field who were all stunned by what they had just seen.

Tomlin said after the game he had no issue with Roethlisberger’s decision to go for the end zone in that situation, despite the fact it cost them the game.

“No. No, man. We play and play to win,” said Tomlin.  “That’s what we do.”

Unfortunately for Tomlin, those types of moments have been what his team has done in these situations against a team they just can’t quite figure out how to beat.

Thankfully, it obviously worked out for the Patriots, who improved to 11-3 on the season with a rematch against the Bills up next this weekend.

Patriots – Steelers Key Matchups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge

Steve Balestrieri
December 16, 2017 at 8:30 am ET

The Patriots go back out on the road for their fifth game in the last six and their last in the 2017 regular season as they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. This is still a hat and t-shirt game for the Patriots. With a win or a tie, the Patriots clinch the AFC East once again for the ninth straight time and the 17th since Robert Kraft took over the team in 1994.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, December 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.

The Patriots (10-3) are coming off an ugly 27-20 loss to Miami on Monday night. The offense struggled all night long and the defense couldn’t stop Kenyan Drake either running or receiving. They’ll be looking for a bounce-back game.

The Steelers (11-2) had another late 4th quarter comeback and pulled off a dramatic 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens where Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 500 yards and Antonio Brown had 213 yards receiving.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2017 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:

The Patriots and Steelers are meeting for the 31st time and the Steeler and Patriots are tied with 15 wins each. However, during the Bill Belichick era the Patriots are 10-3 against the Steelers and have won the last four meetings including the 2016 AFC Championship Game  36-17 in Gillette Stadium last January.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots RBs vs Steelers Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Push

The Patriots running game was steadily gaining momentum with the duo of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead giving them big-play potential. The gained nearly 200 yards two weeks in a row against Miami and Buffalo before hitting the wall last week against the Dolphins and abandoning the running game too soon.

The Steelers run defense has been pretty good all season but in a short week after losing LB Ryan Shazier to a potential career-threatening injury, they were gashed by the Ravens for 152 yards while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

Now they’ve had time to work out the kinks of replacing Shazier and this will be a key area to watch. If Lewis and Burkhead regain their game this week, it will go a long way in negating the Steelers pass rush and make their job of slowing down Tom Brady and Co. much, much harder. The key from a New England perspective is getting the running game going early and opening up the middle of the field.

Patriots WRs vs Steelers Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots passing game is still tops in the NFL and this week they get Rob Gronkowski back from his one-game suspension. Chris Hogan returned from a shoulder injury last week but was ineffective last week. Ditto for Brandin Cooks. The versatility of the Patriots lies with the multiple running backs they can utilize in the passing game, Lewis, Burkhead and James White. And Danny Amendola does nothing but move the sticks every time he catches the ball.

Pittsburgh’s pass defense is the #4 unit in the league, while second in sacks with 41. They can get after the passer in a variety of ways with Cameron Heyward providing them with a career year with nine sacks, Vince Williams with seven and rookie T.J. Watt has six. The Steelers have only allowed an opposing QB to throw for more than 264 yards once (M.Stafford). The pressure on Brady will be the key for them… And will they change their defense from their zone to more of a man scheme?

We don’t have to repeat the stats Brady has against Pittsburgh, he’s had his way with them for 16 years. And with the Patriots offense, it is all about spreading the ball around. Gronkowski leads the team with 55 receptions, White and Cooks have 54 each while Amendola has 52. Hogan who missed four games has 34. While everything goes thru Gronkowski, for Brady it is about sharing the wealth. If he has time to throw.

Next up the Pittsburgh offense:

Steelers RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Pittsburgh

The Steelers running game is based on the incredibly patient Le’Veon Bell who has the vision and physical tools to wait for the slightest crack in the defense and then burst thru the hole. Bell not only leads the league in rushing with 1105 yards rushing, but has 75 catches for 579 yards. He carries a tremendous workload on his shoulders and behind a very good offensive line is a guy who can easily take over a game by himself.

The Patriots run defense has suffered all season. Injuries have piled up both on the edge and inside, the latest with Alan Branch who will miss Sunday’s game is a big blow for a Patriots unit that has struggled to stand up inside.

This matchup is a clear, big advantage for the Steelers. Bell can control the game either on the ground or in the passing game and the Patriots will be hard pressed to keep him in check this week. If he consistently can grind out big gains on 1st and 2nd down, it will make the potent Pittsburgh air attack more deadly.

Steelers WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger has a plethora of weapons, arguably the best he’s ever had in a Steelers uniform to use in the passing game. Antonio Brown easily leads the NFL with 99 catches for 1509 yards and nine touchdowns. Brown is another guy that can take over a game and he had 213 yards against the Ravens last Sunday night. Roethlisberger uses Bell out of the backfield, Jesse James at the tight end position as well as JuJu Smith Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers. They’re heating up at just the right time of the year.

The Patriots pass defense has undergone a transformation in the past seven games. Since a horrible start in September, the New England pass defense in the last seven is allowing an average of 193.1 yards per game. The secondary with Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones at corner have really picked up their game. And they’ll need to against this Pittsburgh talented group of receivers.

Obviously, the keys from a New England perspective is how well they can slow down Brown and Bell, they won’t stop them. Even in games where the Patriots have won comfortably, have got their yards. The key is getting a few stops in the red zone. They’ll have to manufacture some pass rush pressure on Roethlisberger who has been sacked just 19 times this season. And force him into getting rid of the ball before he can find one of his receivers downfield.

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England

The kickers in this one, the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, and the Steelers’ Chris Boswell are both having outstanding seasons. Both have been money on big kicks from long range. What has made Gostkowski so special this season are his kickoffs, which are pinning teams deep.  The Patriots’ outstanding coverage units are smothering the opposition. They’ve also gotten some big plays from Special Teams. The Steelers units rank lower to the bottom of the league in punt and kick returns. The Patriots could use a big play on Special Teams this week on the road.

Next up, who wins and why…

Prediction:

This one should be another Patriots-Steelers instant classic. With the top seed of the AFC on the line, whoever wins this one will have the inside track for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Pittsburgh has been openly clamoring for this one since March and have proclaimed themselves to be “a team of destiny.” Coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t shied away from it either saying the Steelers should win the Super Bowl.

The contrast is, of course, Bill Belichick, while the Patriots know what is at stake, he never lets the team’s focus get too far ahead. To them, this week is a big game, obviously but they say that about every week.

Everything is breaking right for the Steelers, they’re hitting their peak at just the right time and get a Patriots team that is banged up with 13 players on IR and 10 more questionable to play on Sunday. Plus they get it at home where they have a better home record in the last decade-plus than anyone…except New England.

A lot has been made about the changes to the Steelers defense, but until they show those changes on the field, Brady’s dominance over them for the past 16 years is the driving factor here. It will go down to the wire, but the Patriots go home with a very close win. Patriots 30-28

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Steelers Tomlin Fired Up For Patriots Showdown

Ian Logue
December 13, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

It’s only Wednesday and Mike Tomlin sounds like a kid who can’t wait for Christmas as the Steelers await their long anticipated showdown with the Patriots this weekend.

He likely enjoyed himself Monday night as his hated rivals from New England fell apart on national television in a loss that put the Steelers atop the AFC for this week with the best record in the Conference.  That now puts the Patriots in a must-win situation this week, as a victory will tie them with Pittsburgh record-wise at 11-3, but give them the advantage with a head-to-head victory for the tie-breaker for the top seed with two games to play.

Fortunately, unlike back in January when the Patriots ended the Steelers’ run in the AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh will get to play this one on their home turf.  This one still has plenty riding on it, and Tomlin is certainly fired up for it.

“It’s good to be in the kitchen.  The kitchen’s in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field,” Tomlin said via ESPN. “That’s where you want to be in the middle of December. We don’t take it for granted.”

Had New England beaten Miami, it would have likely put even more hype into one of the biggest match-ups of the season.  Up until Monday night, the Patriots and Steelers were the two teams in the AFC who were both playing well and seemed to be the most likely to end up in Minnesota this February.  Now, it’s Pittsburgh who has been the team that despite struggling against lesser opponents, they’ve still found a way to win.  New England, meanwhile, saw Rob Gronkowski get suspended against the Bills last weekend, leaving the Patriots vulnerable against a Dolphins team who smelled blood and took advantage.

Oddly enough, even as bad as everything went, the Patriots were still very much in the game but just couldn’t quite make enough plays to pull off the victory.  To Le’Veon Bell, that’s one of the things he feels should now separate the Steelers and give them the advantage as the Super Bowl favorites.

“I’m obviously going to say yeah, we should be the Super Bowl favorite and we have the talent to back it up,” said Bell via Yahoo! Sports.  “I think we haven’t been necessarily playing our best football, but we’ve been getting the job done for the last eight weeks or so that we’ve won. It may not be pretty, we may not win by 25, 30 points or play a style everybody likes, but we find a way to get the job done.”

“I think us beating Baltimore [in Week 14] 39-38 really showed a lot because that’s a divisional rivalry, against a team that’s been playing really good football. Then you see a team like New England [during the same week] they played a division rival and they didn’t get the job done. Some people don’t like the way we win, but at the end of the day we are winning the games. So I’m confident and I think the rest of our team is too.”

As a result, New England’s misery has Pittsburgh riding high heading into Sunday’s game.  The Patriots have history on their side since Tom Brady holds the 7-2 regular season advantage, as well as a perfect 3-0 postseason record, but Pittsburgh has the momentum.  The good news for Patriots fans is the fact that while Monday night’s game might not have gone the way they hoped, the one thing it likely will do is make the focus a little sharper this week and raise the motivation even a little bit higher as the Patriots try and get back to playing good football.

Either way, this is a pivotal game for both teams, and Tomlin says they’re looking forward to being in the spotlight on National Television for a chance to knock off their nemesis this weekend.

“It’s good to be in big games. It’s better to be in big games than ones nobody’s watching,” he said. “We better be appreciative of this spot and not resistant in any way, but embrace it.”

“This is what we’ve been fighting for since March, to be in these types of games against these types of people. Why would you fight that? It’s an awesome thing.”

Patriots Report Card, 36-17 Win Over Pittsburgh for AFC Crown

Steve Balestrieri
January 25, 2017 at 5:59 am ET

High Marks All Around In Destruction of the Steelers

The Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl after a 36-17 dismantling of the Steelers. After beating the Steelers by 10 without Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh earlier this season, the conventional wisdom was that this one would be a lot closer, with many media folks picking the Steelers in this matchup.

But New England put together a dominant effort in all three phases of the game and held the potent Steelers offense to just nine points until a garbage time touchdown with three minutes to go. So much for not facing and beating an elite QB.

With the victory, the Patriots (16-2) will continue to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons (13-5), in the Super Bowl for the ninth time, the most in NFL history. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick go for the 7th time in 16 years, which is a crazy fact in the age of parity and the salary cap in today’s NFL.

So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.

Quarterback: A
Tom Brady was masterful and in control all game long. After having an off-day against the Texans the week prior, Brady was focused, sharp and picked the Steelers defense apart. He completed 32-42 for 384 yards and 3 TDs for a passer rating of 127.5

In his last six games against the Steelers, Brady has thrown 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He picked apart the Steelers zone coverage and constantly found the open man. When they changed things at the line, Brady would audible at the pre-snap and kept Pittsburgh’s defense on their heels.

When the Steelers closed to 10-6 in the second quarter, Brady engineered a magnificent nine-play 82-yard drive for a touchdown that put the Patriots in the driver’s seat for good. Completing key third down passes to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, the Patriots put the dagger in with a perfectly executed 34-yard flea flicker to Hogan for the score.

Running Backs: C+
LeGarrette Blount was held easily in check in this one until his 18-yard burst thru the line where he ended up carrying over half the Pittsburgh defenders with him to the one-yard line. He followed that up with a touchdown on his next carry. His 2.9-yard average wasn’t what the team was looking for but running the ball wasn’t in the gameplan this time.

Blount had 47 yards on 16 carries, Dion Lewis wasn’t as effective as we thought he’d be as the interior of the Pittsburgh defensive line did a very good job of stuffing the run. He ended up with just 11 yards on six carries.

Wide Receivers: A
Unlike the first Pittsburgh game where the WRs were an afterthought to the running game, this time the Patriots came out fast and throwing the ball. Brady spread the ball around to nine receivers on the day and Pittsburgh had no answer.

Chris Hogan gets the game ball with a new Patriots postseason receiving record of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The amazing thing was he could have had more. He dropped a bubble screen with plenty of blocking ahead of him and let another go off his fingertips in the end zone. But it was a fantastic day for the former Buffalo Bill.

The best line of the game went to the Boston Herald’s Ron Borges who said about the free agent the Patriots signed in March, “Ten months later, the Steelers showed as much interest in Hogan as the Bills had. The Bills didn’t covet him and the Steelers didn’t cover him.” Brilliant and summed up perfectly.

Julian Edelman had another fantastic performance with 8 catches for 118 yards and a score. The Steelers had no one that could cover him and he found the open areas of the zone coverage time and again.

Tight Ends: B
The Patriots used their “12” Personnel package in the first meeting quite a bit with 1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs with both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in the lineup. This time around they went with their “10” package with 1 RB and 4 WRs for nearly 20 snaps. So, the tight ends weren’t big targets in the passing game.

Bennett however, did catch five passes for 32 yards and provided some solid blocking in the running game.

Offensive Line: B
The offensive line did a great job of pass protection this week, after a game against Houston where Brady was under pressure for most of the game. This time, they clogged the middle when the Steelers tried to bring pressure up the A-gaps and their edge rushers James Harrison and Dud Dupree were rendered practically invisible with strong performances by Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.

The run blocking was another story as the Pittsburgh interior DL stood up strong all game long in run support. Joe Thuney was tossed aside by Jason Hargraves like a sack of mail on one sequence.

But the game plan this week was to throw and Brady’s protection was very, very good for the majority of this one. He frequently had so much time he stood flat-footed waiting for someone to get open.

Defensive Line: B+
The Patriots defensive line had a tremendous day of stuffing the run. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine were tremendous inside. Pittsburgh’s running game got just 54 yards on 20 carries. After Le’Veon Bell went down with an injury, they brought in D’Angelo Williams who carried 14 times for just 34 yards.

Valentine had a huge stuff of Williams on a 2nd and goal run that pushed them back to the five-yard line. That sequence resulted in a field goal after the Steelers had 1st and goal from the one-foot line.

The defensive line had another stop on the Steelers later in the game. Branch stuffed a run on first down. He and Valentine set up another stop by Hightower and Pittsburgh came away with no points.

Linebackers: B
Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts were going to be the main players in the game, but once Bell went down, they went more with Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin. Van Noy forced a fumble from Eli Rogers and Rob Ninkovich flew up from the line to recover it. No surprise there, whenever there is a big play in a big game, Ninkovich is always there.

The Patriots tried some A-gap blitzes with Hightower and Roberts but the Steelers OL did a good job of picking them up. McClellin did get some pressure on a few plays from the edge.

Secondary: B+
The defensive game plan was to limit the Steelers two best players, Bell and Antonio Brown on Sunday. Brown is one of the most dangerous players in the league and is a threat every time he touches the football.

Malcolm Butler was matched up with Brown with a safety over the top. They took away his ability to use the middle of the field nearly perfectly, where he always seems to get a ton of yards after the catch.

After Bell went down, the secondary switched from more man coverage to zone. Roethlisberger did very well against that, completing 16-17 passes, but the majority were of the check down variety and they took away the deep part of the field.

Both Butler and Logan Ryan had strong games in the secondary as the latter continues his very good season. He was taken out on a nicely designed pick play by the Steelers where Jesse James got a 16-yard gain. Eric Rowe was the fortunate one on Sunday night. He was beaten a few times and was the gift recipient of a couple of drops and then was beaten for the late touchdown when a communication breakdown allowed  Cobi Hamilton to be all alone for a 30-yard touchdown.

But overall, it was a fantastic effort for the secondary and the defense as a whole. We heard ad nauseam how the Patriots hadn’t faced an elite QB all season. Well, they did on Sunday and held them to essentially nine points until the garbage time score late.

Special Teams: B

Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, although this time in the conference championship game it didn’t come back to haunt him. He was perfect on three field goals, however.

Ryan Allen didn’t have to punt much but was effective with a 43.5 net average. The coverage units were solid and Jonathan Jones gets high marks for a couple of bone-jarring hits.

The return game was disappointing after a big night against Houston. Dion Lewis had a single return for just 18-yards and Edelman didn’t have any punt returns.

Coaches: A
Bill Belichick had the team ready to go and put together an outstanding game plan for this one. After leaning on Blount and the running game in Pittsburgh, the Patriots planned to start fast and do it with the passing game.

Josh McDaniels called a fantastic game and the decision to go with the up-tempo was brilliant. The Steelers had no answer for either Hogan or Edelman and Brady, as he’s been so often against Pittsburgh, picked them apart.

In our keys to the game, our take was that the Patriots should force the Steelers linebackers to play in space and they showed that their coverage was an Achilles heel. He caught them time and again in the times the Steelers attempted to blitz Brady and the play call for the flea flicker touchdown to Hogan was a beauty.

Matt Patricia and Belichick had the game plan to take away Bell and Brown and force Roethlisberger to beat them with Rogers, Coates, and James. It worked to perfection. Roethlisberger even hinted after the game in a not-so-subtle jab that perhaps the moment was too big for the young receivers.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Brady, Patriots Look Super, Thrash Steelers for AFC Title

Steve Balestrieri
January 23, 2017 at 9:00 am ET

The Patriots are going back to the mother ship. Yes, folks, that’s right the Pats are heading to Houston for Super Bowl LI after thrashing the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 on Sunday night in Foxboro. They did it by playing great defense in the red zone and in goal-line situations and by riding the arm once again of Tom Brady.

Brady did what he’s done so many times before to the Pittsburgh defense. He eviscerated them to the tune of 32-42 for 384 yards with 3 TDs and zero INTs for a passer rating of 127.5. Pinch us if we’ve seen this scene before. Against Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers teams, Brady has now thrown 22 TDs and 0 INTs.

Brady hit Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman on the perimeter all night long torching the Steelers secondary again and again. Combined, the two had 17 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Pittsburgh had no answer.

With the win the Patriots will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl, most in NFL history. And Tom Brady and the Pats will be playing in their seventh Super Bowl in the past 16 seasons. That is a ridiculous number and when people talk about dynastic eras in the sport, keep in mind this was done in a salary cap era where the league wants to push its parity.

So, the Patriots will be facing off against the Atlanta Falcons, who like NE, won in a rout as Matt Ryan picked the Green Bay defense apart in 44-21 curb stomping. But there is and will be plenty of time to talk about that matchup. Tonight is about the AFC Championship Game and this team’s place in the franchise’s history.

Other observations from tonight include:

Chris Hogan WAS a pretty good signing: Back in the spring, we were singing the praises of Hogan and the decision of Bill Belichick to sign him away from Buffalo. But the news, like many of the Patriots free agent signings, was met with a lot of ho-hum type of reactions. After all, when Bills GM Doug Whaley listed the players that should compete for the open Bills #2 WR slot, he didn’t even include Hogan, who was a restricted free agent.

Well after a solid first season in Foxboro where he was the #2 WR in the NFL in terms of average yards per reception, Hogan made his presence felt. Against the Steelers, he set a Patriots postseason record with 180 yards on 9 catches and 2 TDs. He narrowly missed a third score when a Brady pass glanced off his hands in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots used him in the slot a lot like they did with Rob Gronkowski against Pittsburgh and the results were remarkably similar. Although the two have vastly different skill sets, Hogan used his speed to find open spots in the zone and then blew past the defense for a long touchdown flea flicker from Brady.

How Will the Play of the Defense be Minimalized Now? The Patriots defense has transformed itself since the midway point of the season. And nothing they did in the second half of 2016 got any credit for the way they played individually and the scheme by Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick. All we heard was “they haven’t played a good QB”…ad nauseam.

This unit was the top defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed, giving up just 15.6 points per game, and 12.9 during the second half of the season. “Pittsburgh is the test with their big play WRs and Bell” was the rallying cry heard all week. Well, what’s going to be the excuse now?

The Patriots defense held Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to just nine points until a garbage time TD with about 3 minutes left when they were playing soft upped their total to 17. It was also the least amount of points the Steelers scored during their nine-game winning streak. Remember when NE beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 27-16? “But that was with Landry Jones!” the naysayers said. “Wait until they face Big Ben.”

The defense gave up just 17 points and held Pittsburgh to just 1 score in trips to the red zone (part of our keys) and 0-2 in goal line possessions. For a team that prides itself on their toughness and physicality, the Patriots punched them in the mouth and showed they were the more physical team tonight.

Belichick and Patricia Changed Things Up Perfectly: Early in the game, the Pats were playing man coverage with safety help over the top for Antonio Brown. After La’Veon Bell went down with a groin injury, they changed it to a zone scheme on the fly and without the bigger threat of Bell in the running game, the focus was to keep the play in front of them and make the Steelers earn their scores by slowly making their way down the field.

While Roethlisberger ended up with 314 yards, the Patriots kept them out of the end zone with some tough play in the red zone. Brown wasn’t a big factor catching seven catches for 77 yards and Bell had just 20 yards on six carries before exiting. De Angelo Williams, who had torched New England a year ago, had just 34 yards on 14 carries. Pittsburgh as a team ran for just 54 yards on 20 carries, a 2.7-yard average.

In our keys to the game, we wrote about the disparity between Roethlisberger’s passer rating at home and on the road. At home, it was a stellar 116.7 and on the road, it was just 78.4. The Patriots held him to just an 83.1 passer rating for the game. So yes they CAN stop an elite QB.

Drive of the Game: With the Patriots holding a 10-6 lead in the first half, the Steelers were in the position to stop New England and possibly take the lead. The Patriots went 82 yards in nine plays to increase their lead to 17-6 and never look back.

Some of the key plays to keep the drive alive were the 12-yard pass from Brady to Julian Edelman on 3rd and 10. Then facing a 3rd and 8 at the NE 44-yard line, Brady hit Chris Hogan for 22 yards, which set them up at the Pittsburgh 34-yard line.

That led to the scoring play a 34-yard flea flicker where Brady handed off to Dion Lewis who pitched it back to Brady and he found Hogan for a much-too-easy scoring pass where he blew by the defenders who were rushing up in run support.

The Patriots had answered the Steelers scoring drive with a big one of their own and any hope that the defense had of stopping New England went out the window.

Josh McDaniels Deserves a Lot of Credit for this One: After a sloppy and less than ideal Divisional game where the offense never really seemed to get into a rhythm, this game was supposed to be a much different test. The Steelers defense had been playing much better in the second half of the season and was supposed to give a much bigger test than the unit did earlier in the year.

While Houston moved its edge players inside to get to Tom Brady, Pittsburgh wasn’t going to do that. They are a “we do what we do” type of defense. Edge rushers James Harrison and Bud Dupree stayed on the edge and weren’t big factors in the pass rush.

McDaniels recognized where the weak spots in the zone coverage were and the Patriots exploited them. Brady and McDaniels saw tendencies and were on the same page where Brady audibled and took advantage of the matchups.

Hogan 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs, and Julian Edelman 8 catches for 118 yards and a score were unstoppable all night long and the running backs, where we thought would be matchup problems for Pittsburgh never materialized.

We’re on to Houston…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots – Steelers AFC Championship Key Matchups

Steve Balestrieri
January 20, 2017 at 9:44 am ET

The New England Patriots head to the AFC Championship Game for a record sixth time in a row and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m.

The game will be televised by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Phil Simms as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The SportsHub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Cappello.

The Patriots (15-2) defeated the Houston Texans in the Divisional round 34-16 despite not being at their best offensively. The Patriots turned the ball over three times although Dion Lewis set an NFL record with a rushing, receiving and a return for a touchdown. The Patriots defense forced three turnovers with interceptions of Brock Osweiler.

The Steelers (13-5) defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round 18-16. The Steelers offense also struggled and failed to score a touchdown relying on six Chris Boswell field goals. The Steelers defense stopped a two-point conversion with seconds left in the game that could have sent it into overtime.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:
The Patriots and Steelers meet for the 30th time but just the 10th in Pittsburgh. The Steelers own a 15-14 edge overall in the history between the two teams. However, since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, the Patriots have had great success against the Steelers taking 10 of 13.

In their last meeting, earlier this season the Patriots won 27-16 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger and had Landry Jones at quarterback. Tom Brady completed 19-26 for 222 yards and LaGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs on 24 carries.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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