The Patriots did not deserve to win this game.
If I were a Steelers fan I would have been livid with the outcome. The Steelers came out and challenged the Patriots from start to finish, exploiting the Patriots’ weakness and pushing them to the brink of defeat. Pittsburgh was the better team throughout the night, which is not a testament to how the Patriots played as they were able to step up and make plays when they needed to.
But at the end of the day, it was New England who was breathing a sigh of relief as they escaped Pittsburgh with yet another AFC East title and the top seed in the AFC for the time being.
As a Patriots fan, I spent most of this game nervously sweating through my jersey. The glaring holes we saw the Dolphins expose last week were on full display once again this week. Even without MVP candidate Antonio Brown, who left the game early in the second quarter with a calf injury, Le’Veon Bell ran through the Patriots defense for an easy 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per carry). We are getting to the point where it should just be assumed that if the other team has a healthy running back on its roster, they will have success against this defense. There was a stretch during the third quarter where the Steelers ran the same sweep to the right side 2-3 times in a row for a first down.
The secondary was not much better. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed passes to eight different targets for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Again, without Antonio Brown, I expected the secondary to step up and perform a little better than they did. It also did not help that the Patriots’ non-existent pass rush was in prime form, allowing Big Ben to extend plays and even run for a couple of first downs.
It would not be a memorable Patriots game without an inexplicable big play by the opponent. In what will surely be a candidate for most embarrassing play of the year, Steelers rookie phenom receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster turned a simple 2-yard drag into a 69-yard gain, running through arm tackles and colliding Patriot defenders. This play was unlike any Mario Manningham or Julio Jones catch you can think of. This is honestly a play that you should only see at your little brother’s high school football game. I immediately opened my laptop prepared to write about how the Pats did not deserve to win this game.
But somehow, someway, the Patriots did what great teams do. Behind a monster performance from tight end Rob Gronkowski (9 catches for 168 yards), the Patriots made the big plays they had to make in order to comeback and win this game. Gronk put the team on his back as the rest of the receiving corps failed to have a significant impact for the second game in a row. The Patriots are famous for taking away their opponent’s best weapon. The Steelers must not believe in this strategy, as Gronk was allowed to match up alone in man coverage all night, as if he isn’t a 6’7” freak athlete who can make finger-tip catches off the ground better than a lot of 6’2” receivers like myself.
The defense was able to close the deal with a late game interception by safety Duron Harmon. If there was a statistic accounting for game closing interceptions, Harmon would easily be amongst the league leaders. Though that fake spike had worked in the past for the Steelers, that is not a throw you make into a heavily congested area if you’re Big Ben. The Steelers and their fans will be stuck on that last drive for a while. Unless you are Eli Rodgers who is already predicting a Steelers win the next time these teams play.
Who cares if the Pats were aided by that aforementioned pass from Big Ben and a mysterious incomplete pass at the hands of Jesse James. Sure, the defense was chips for most of the night and the receivers might as well have been decoys for Gronk.
The Pats rode their stars to victory. Brady orchestrated the fourth quarter comeback you knew he would and the defense came up with the goal line stop you didn’t think they could.
We got our yearly AFC East Participation Championship and are back on pace for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots will have two weeks to put together something that resembles a run defense and remind numbers 14, 80, and 13 that they are receivers in the National Football League.
For now, we can relax as our regular season tests have been passed and the playoffs are coming into the horizon. We will most likely see this team again in the playoffs and hopefully the outcome will be a little bit more convincing.