Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Patriots head into Christmas weekend at 11-3 in the standings, the number one seed in the AFC, masters of their domain, and a unanimous first in the rankings. The ‘controversial’ win was only controversial for those who either didn’t know the catch rule, or just plain didn’t like that the Patriots were the beneficiary. I’ll wager the latter is where most of the whining about how wrong it is, is coming from, but that’s okay. It’s all good. The Pats beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, in the game of the year. Brady was fired up and yelling at the fans, Gronk was in a zone in the second half, and we fans were gifted yet another come-from-behind thriller to re-live for years to come. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Maybe tomorrow I’ll be ready to set aside this week for a bit, put it on the shelf and move on to Week 16 vs. the Buffalo Avengers. That team-wearying 5-out-of-6 road-game stretch is over but the Patriots still have to take care of business at home and finish strong. Isn’t that what this team is known for?
Around the AFC East:
New England (11-3) vs. Buffalo (8-6)
Miami (6-8) at Kansas City (8-6)
NY Jets (5-9) vs. LA Chargers (7-7)
Pittsburgh (11-3) at Houston (4-10)
Jacksonville (10-4) at San Francisco (4-10)
Tennessee (8-6) vs. LA Rams (10-4)
Baltimore (8-6) vs. Indianapolis (3-10)
Oakland (6-8) at Philadelphia (12-2)
Cincinnati (5-9) vs. Detroit (8-6)
Denver (5-9) at Washington (6-8)
Cleveland (0-14) at Chicago (4-10)
1st - Chris Simms (Bleacher Report): The Patriots did a masterful job of hanging in against the Steelers and executing down the stretch. Yes, they got fortunate in the end, but that doesn't take away from the fact New England survived in a tough environment and in a tough situation. It helped, of course, that Rob Gronkowski was back in the lineup. He is the greatest tight end in the history of football, and you can see how it changes Tom Brady and the offense when Gronk is in there. New England isn't a shoo-in for the Super Bowl, but now that the Pats are inching closer to home-field advantage, their chances are looking good. It's going to be tough for a team to come into Foxborough and win in January.
1st - Elliot Harrison (NFL.com): At the end of the day at Heinz Field, the Patriots were saved by two future Hall of Famers ... and the NFL rulebook. I don't know what a catch is, but I do know that final New England foray was a masterpiece from Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, a representation of the oft-symbiotic relationship that's been ripping up defenses since 2010. Their connection is Rivers-Gates-esque, or Romo-Witten-esque, in spades. However, letting the Steelers go right down the field in a matter of seconds? Yeah, that was not Canton-worthy from the secondary. Yet, much like Brady, Gronk and the Patriots of the last 17 years, they found a way to win.
1st - Mark Maske (Washington Post): The Patriots reclaim the No. 1 spot after their victory over the Steelers. It certainly wasn’t easy. But Tom Brady yet again was at his best in crunch time. Rob Gronkowski was a difference-maker for the offense in his return from his one-game suspension. And good luck and meticulous preparation came together for the Patriots in the wild final sequence when the catch-rule replay reversal went their way and their defense was more than ready for the fake-spike throw into the end zone.
1st - Frank Schwab (Yahoo! Sports): It’s reasonable to question if they deserve the No. 1 spot. But they have lost one game since Oct. 1, in an obvious look-ahead spot (no matter what Bill Belichick said), and just won on the road against a Steelers team that was 11-2. Doubt the Patriots at your own risk.
1st - Vinnie Iyer (Sporting News): The Patriots didn't get many style points for their victory in Pittsburgh, but the gritty performance reinforced why Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the NFL championship favorites again.
1st - Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): By beating the Steelers, the NFL playoffs will likely go through Foxborough. Beating the Patriots will be tough to do in their building come January.
1st - Adam Stites (SB Nation): The Patriots barely escaped Pittsburgh, but they did get the win. Tom Brady threw to Rob Gronkowski on what felt like 25 straight passes in the fourth quarter and the Steelers had no answer. Then when the New England defense didn’t do anything to stop JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Patriots got a little lucky.
First it was a pass to Jesse James that looked like a touchdown, but was ruled incomplete thanks to the NFL’s catch rule.
Then Ben Roethlisberger seemingly forgot what down it was, and threw an interception that sealed the game for the Patriots.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and most of the time it feels like the Patriots are both.
1st - MMQB Staff (SI).
1st - Experts (ESPN): Tom Brady (12): Brett Favre (2009) and Warren Moon (1997) are the only quarterbacks to make a Pro Bowl at the age of 40. Brady will likely join them, as the Patriots are atop the AFC playoff picture and he's fourth in the league in Total QBR.
1st - Joshua Schrock (NESN): Once again, everything comes up Patriots. New England defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field thanks to a controversial overturned touchdown, a baffling fake-spike call and Rob Gronkowski’s super-human effort. The Patriots control their own destiny for the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
1st - Kevin Dillon (MassLive): If Jesse James held onto the ball, we would be having a different conversation right now. But he did not, and the Patriots played terrific situational football at the end of the game to hold on to a win. New England has the inside track at the No. 1 seed in the AFC now, and could be en route to another Super Bowl appearance.
1st - Joe Giglio (NJ.com): Even on a tough day for Tom Brady, the Patriots do what has become commonplace in this era: Swat way the top opponent with smart, efficient play late in the game.
1st - Manish Mehta (NY Daily News): Who's got it better than Tom Brady? First, the Tuck Rule. Then the catch/no catch shenanigans in Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Evil Empire are in prime position for home field advantage throughout the playoffs… and an eighth Super Bowl appearance for Tommy Boy.
1st - Staff (USA Today): They've certainly proven to be beatable lately. But they're also most deserving of this top spot and sure to be favored in AFC bracket.
1st - Staff (AP Pro32).