The New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday in one of the craziest games in recent memory. The visitors' 27-24 last-second, come-from-behind victory was a hard-fought contest – one that saw the Patriots a) play a rather sloppy game but b) have their star players step up when they were needed the most.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some quick-hit winners and losers from the game.
Winner: TE Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski played in a league of his own yesterday. The 28-year old dominated the Pittsburgh defense all game long and finished with nine catches for a career-high 168 yards as well as a two-point conversion. Whenever the Patriots offense needed to move the football, it went to Gronkowski and produced spectacular results – especially on the game-winning drive, when the best tight end in the league was transcendent. An MVP performance.
Loser: All things third down
One week after failing to convert even a single third down on offense, New England again struggled to keep drives alive. The Patriots were only 3-of-9 on third down, leading to a rather lopsided time of possession: Pittsburgh held the football more than 35 minutes. What also contributed was the defense's inability to get off the field in key situations. The unit forced only one three-and-out – albeit a timely one in the fourth quarter – while allowing 10 of 16 third downs to be converted.
Loser: CB Eric Rowe
He did break up the pass on Duron Harmon's game-sealing interception, but overall it was not a good performance by the second-year Patriot: Rowe struggled all game long. The Patriots' number three cornerback saw his most action since returning from injury and he was rusty and beat on numerous occasions like the Steelers' first touchdown of the day or JuJu Smith-Schuster's 69-yard gain late in the final period.
Winner: QB Tom Brady
Tom Brady did not play a perfect game as he missed some easy throws and had one of the biggest negative plays of the game when he threw a second-half interception to set up a Steelers touchdown. However, Brady did as Brady does on his team's go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter: The NFL's best quarterback threw completions of 26, 26 and 17 yards as well as a two-point conversion to put his team up 27-24 with under a minute left in the game. It was vintage Brady.
Loser: DT Adam Butler
With Alan Branch out due to a knee injury, the Patriots needed their depth options to step up to provide inside pass rush and a upfield push in the run game. Adam Butler, who played considerable snaps as the third man in the rotation, failed to do either. The rookie was consistently blocked off the football on rushing plays and a non-factor versus the pass. With fellow defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois looking solid yesterday, seeing Butler lose snaps moving would not be a surprise.
Winner: WR Brandin Cooks
Not even a week after arguably the worst game of his Patriots tenure, wideout Brandin Cooks looked like his usual self versus Pittsburgh. The 24-year old put the pressure on the Steelers' secondary and finished with four catches for 60 yards as well as a touchdown in the third quarter. While not all was perfect for Cooks – take his fourth quarter illegal touch penalty, for example – it was a nice bounce-back performance after his game in Miami.
Loser: LS Joe Cardona
Long snapping in the NFL is an unglamorous job: You know you are doing a good job when people are not talking about you. Joe Cardona has to be talked about today as the third-year snapper had a down performance yesterday and had two noticeable bad snaps. One was off target on a Ryan Allen punt, the other came in too low on an extra point attempt that sailed wide left.
Loser: CB Stephon Gilmore
After stepping up his game over the last few weeks and looking like the shutdown cornerback all of New England anticipated when he was brought on board, Stephon Gilmore had a bad day versus the Steelers. The free agency signing was beat on multiple occasions with the most memorable ones being a 39-yard completion on third down as well as a touchdown late in the second quarter. Gilmore played on an island most of the time and was unable to consistently shadow his assignments.
Winner: RB Dion Lewis
Ever since he took over as the Patriots' lead running back, Dion Lewis looked like his old aka. his 2015 self. The 27-year old was very good again versus the Steelers and handled the higher workload he saw after Rex Burkhead's injury well. On the day, Lewis had 14 offensive touches – 13 runs and a reception – gaining a combined 80 yards while also scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final period. At times, Pittsburgh had no answer for Lewis.
Loser: LB Elandon Roberts
A hit-or-miss player the entire season, Elandon Roberts was more miss than hit yesterday. The second-year linebacker, who sees increased playing time with Dont'a Hightower out for the year, did finish with six tackles but also took some questionable angles at times – with Le'Veon Bell's third quarter scoring run a perfect example: Roberts drastically overshoot his gap and thus allowed the ball carrier to get towards the perimeter and into the endzone.
Winner: FS Duron Harmon
New England's defense struggled to contain Pittsburgh's offense but when the game was on the line, the man known as “The Closer” stepped up and delivered a season-altering play. Duron Harmon, who also stopped the above-mentioned big play to JuJu Smith-Schuster before it reached the end zone, was a big part of the Patriots preventing big plays (for most of the game) but earns his mention for a game-saving interception in the end zone. As he has been multiple times in the past, Harmon was in the right spot at the right time.
Losers: FS Devin McCourty and SS Jordan Richards
Devin McCourty and Jordan Richards find themselves on the list mainly because of one play: The above-mentioned 69-yard catch-and-run by JuJu Smith-Schuster in the fourth quarter. After the rookie beat Eric Rowe, both McCourty and Richards were in a position to stop the potentially game-changing play after comparatively minimal yardage. However, McCourty took a bad angle and Richards simply whiffed on the tackle attempt. Bad situational football by both players.