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.
“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.