In a game that basically summed up the era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots did what they usually do in games like this. They prevailed.
Patriots 27, Steelers 24.
Of course, it wasn’t easy. When you’re playing against another Super Bowl contender with huge stakes on the line, it rarely is easy. But these are the games that Belichick’s Patriots are designed to win. This is why they’ve been so successful over the years. They did the little things right when they mattered. After the Patriots took a three-point lead with 56 seconds remaining, and the Steelers immediately fired back by getting into the red zone in just a matter of seconds, the Patriots didn’t get flustered.
They did catch a break when Ben Roethlisberger’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Jesse James fell incomplete, even though it was initially ruled a touchdown catch that most likely would’ve won the game for Pittsburgh. But the officials reviewed the play, and after seeing that the ball clearly came loose when James hit the ground, they overturned the call and declared it an incomplete pass.
Naturally, Steelers fans acted like they got screwed over (only because they were on the losing side of a controversial finish and they lost all ability to think logically and reasonably). But the right call was made. If you watch the replay, it’s clear as day.
The win was officially sealed for New England when Roethlisberger’s pass was deflected, and then intercepted by Duron Harmon. As they’ve done many times over the last several years, the Patriots did the right things at the right time. We expect the Patriots to pull out these wins, because we’ve just seen it so many times before. It’s why most people outside of New England hate them. But because of it, the road to Super Bowl 52 has a pretty good chance of going through Foxborough, Massachusetts (barring a catastrophic end to the regular season).
I had been thinking about this game all week. After all, it was the biggest game of the season. It was the first Patriots game in weeks that had a sense of urgency. It was so big that it led Jim Nantz to scream, “There is so much on the line, Tony!” to broadcast partner Tony Romo as the game was about to kickoff. But these are the games that fans are supposed to get excited about. This is why you follow your team and bleed for your team – for the chance to see them win meaningful games like this. And I had a feeling this game would tell me a lot about New England’s chances of winning another Super Bowl this year.
Generally, Pats teams that end up winning the Super Bowl typically win games like this. Pats teams that don’t win the Super Bowl typically squander games like this. So for Pats fans -- and myself -- there was more riding on this game than just the top spot in the AFC.
As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t easy. Trailing 17-10 in the third quarter, Brady connected with Brandin Cooks for a touchdown that should’ve tied the game. But Stephen Gostkowski, who at one point was unquestionably the best kicker in the NFL, missed the extra point (as he’s become known to do from time to time). Instead of a 17-all tie, it was 17-16 Steelers. As if right on cue, the flashbacks from the 2015 AFC Championship game in Denver came flooding back. Here we go again. I still haven’t gotten over that one.
And usually, things get worse before they get better. On New England’s very next possession, with a chance to take back the lead, Brady targeted Rob Gronkowski, who was in the midst of his biggest game of the year. But the pass was intercepted by Vince Williams, and the Steelers immediately found themselves on the Pats’ 22-yard line. Five plays later, Le’Veon Bell punched it in for the touchdown.
Steelers 24, Pats 16. It wasn’t looking good. This was exactly what I feared would happen.
Fortunately, it was the Never-Say-Die Pats team that showed up to Heinz Field, and Brady sure as hell wasn’t going down without a fight. A field goal by Gostkowski made it a five-point game with just under four minutes to go, and after the Pats’ defense came up huge to force a punt and give Brady a chance to win it, he delivered a quick touchdown drive that only took a minute and 10 seconds off the clock. Dion Lewis rushed into the end zone for the go-ahead score, and then Brady hung a beautiful floater to Gronkowski for the two-point conversion that made it a three-point game – 27-24, Patriots. A classic Tom Brady comeback drive to take the lead. We’ve seen it plenty of times.
Only problem was, the Pats left too much time on the clock (56 seconds), which has proven to be one of the flaws of the Brady-Belichick era, and a number of times, they have been fatal. I was absolutely ready for Roethlisberger to drive the Steelers down the field, and then Chris Boswell to kick a field goal that would send the game to overtime. In fact, I was expecting it. What I wasn’t expecting to happen was what actually happened: Roethlisberger getting off a short pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster (who should really consider a name change), and then JuJu breaking loose for 69 yards, all the way down to the New England 10-yard line. I wasn’t prepared for that. Absolutely soul-crushing.
There were 34 seconds left on the clock at this point. If Pittsburgh got into the end zone and went up by four points, there wouldn’t be near enough time for the Pats to answer back with a touchdown of their own. It was game over if they scored.
So when Big Ben hit Jesse James for what initially appeared to be a touchdown? Just an all-around deflating feeling. We had this game won, we just left too much time on the dang clock … again. But then the officials overturned the ruling and declared it an incomplete pass (which, once again, was the correct call, no matter how much Pittsburgh fans cry about it).
Ultimately, it didn’t seem like it really mattered. The Steelers still had 28 seconds to score, and they were only 10 yards out. And even if they failed to get a touchdown, they were still only a Boswell field goal away from tying the game and sending it to overtime. The Pats needed a “Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 49” type of takeaway.
And amazingly, they got it. After a short three-yard pass, Roethlisberger and the Steelers got flustered. Instead of spiking the ball and getting time to draw up the perfect game-winning play, they tried to force a quick touchdown pass to Eli Rogers … only the pass was deflected by Eric Rowe, and then snagged out of the air by Duron Harmon. CBS immediately showed the replay of the interception, followed by a close-up shot of a homicidal Mike Tomlin.
That was that. Brady kneeled down to end the game, and it was official. The Pats had pulled out another win because, ultimately, they made one more play than their opponent did. That has to be the biggest staple of the Belichick-Brady era, and this win in Pittsburgh summed up that era in a nutshell. Of course, they couldn’t have done it without Gronkowski’s memorable performance (nine catches for 168 yards), who caught a number of huge passes that kept multiple drives alive, including a pivotal fourth down conversion. They couldn’t have done it without Brady delivering another clutch fourth quarter drive to take the lead. And they also couldn’t have done it without the Steelers making a fatal mistake in the end, but that’s what you need to win in the NFL. You need to do the little things right, and you need your opponent to goof up on occasion.
And because the Patriots pulled this off, they’ll most likely get to host the Steelers at Gillette Stadium if they meet in the playoffs. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.