Here we are at last.
Week 3 of the preseason is in the books, and absolutely nobody cares about Week 4 in the slightest, so I figured that today was the perfect time to officially put a bow on our countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2017 and unveil my Number One moment of the entire year.
Now in years past, it was never in doubt which Patriots Moment would dominate the top of this list. When the Patriots weren’t winning Super Bowls, they busy capitalizing on Buttfumbles and 24 point comebacks and fake punts for the ages, so it was never too hard for anyone to see what was coming. This year, though, there may be a few of you out there who didn’t quite know what was going to top the list. The Amendola catch against the Jags? The Stephon Gilmore pass breakup? Gronk going beast mode? All would be good candidates, to be honest...but for me, there’s really only one moment I can put up at the one spot - not only because of the play itself, but because of the ripple effect it had on the rest of the NFL in 2017 and beyond.
But first, for the final time... the list so far:
20. Back-to-back touchdowns before the half against the New York Jets help the Patriotssecure the #1 Seed in the AFC.
19. A one-handed Dion Lewis grab is pretty much the only thing that goes right against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.
18. The Patriots pick up James Harrison.
17. A safety and a strip sack to help secure the Number 1 Seed in the AFC against the New York Jets.
16. Gronk’s inner caveman finally reveals itself and gets him suspended.
15. Brandin Cooks follows Gronk into the end zone...and rides him out.
14. A throw off the back foot leads to an epic Gronk touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
13. Tom Brady hits Brandin Cooks for a 64 yard TD against the Oakland Raiders.
12. A goal line stand ends with a huge stuff on 4th and 3 to preserve the shutout against the Atlanta Falcons.
11. A bizarre fumble turns a touchdown into a touchback against the New York Jets.
10. Rob Gronkowski hauls in a spectacular one-handed TD grab to even the score against the Buffalo Bills.
9. Stephon Gilmore gets airborne to break up a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
8. The Patriots trade Jimmy Garoppolo.
7. Gronk goes beast mode in the final two minutes to give the Patriots the lead against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
6. A standard punt return somehow turns into a safety against the Los Angeles Chargers.
5. Stephen Gostkowski sets a personal and franchise record with a 62 yard field goal just before halftime against the Oakland Raiders.
4. A 103 yard Dion Lewis kickoff return for a touchdown highlights special teams dominance in a beatdown of the Denver Broncos.
3. Tom Brady hits Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone to complete a 4th quarter comeback for the ages to send the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
2. Tom Brady hits Brandin Cooks in the end zone with 25 seconds left to play to lift the Patriots past the Houston Texans.
Number One, for me, is the play that changed it all.
1. Duron Harmon intercepts a pass in the end zone to seal the win in a wild game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Patriots vs. Steelers in a possible AFC Championship preview. How many times has that been written over the years?
As hard as the NFL tries to achieve parity, there are always a few teams who always seem to be in contention, and one of those teams is the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best QBs in the game, LeVeon Bell is the best RB, Antonio Brown is the best receiver, and Pittsburgh has a young defensive core who is trending upwards. So once again, when the Patriots traveled to Heinz Field for a Week 15 showdown, the narrative was that whoever won this game would be hosting this exact same matchup in the AFC Championship. It was one of the most, if not the most, hyped games of the entire 2017 season.
And boy did it live up to its name.
Intense back-and-forths. Strong defensive stops. Big plays. This game had it all. Tommy B and Big Ben combined for almost 600 yards passing. Bell rushed for 117 yards. Gronk had 168 on the day. It was a game in which the Steelers pulled ahead. but no team was ever up by more than one score at any point. The largest lead of the day was eight points, when the Steelers took a 24-16 lead late in the third quarter.
Things were looking good for Pittsburgh when they held the Patriots to a field goal with less than four minutes to play to bring the score to 19-24, as all they needed was one first down to more or less put the game away. However, the New England defense stepped up and forced the three and out. Tommy B got the ball back , and as I already recapped in our Number Seven Moment, Gronk became unstoppable to put the Patriots up by a field goal. 27-24 Patriots with less than a minute to go, and the Steelers only had one timeout left. Just keep the play in front of you and protect the sidelines, and New England should be getting away with a win.
Ghost kicked off, and Juju Smith-Schuster returned the ball to the 22. Pittsburgh needed about 45-50 yards to give Shaun Suisham a shot to tie the game.
They would get that, and then some.
On the very first play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger his Juju on a shallow crossing patters that should have been a four or five yard gain. However, Eric Rowe got tangled up in some traffic going across the middle, Devin McCourty got blocked out of the play, and for the first time ever in his career, Jordan Richards took a horrible angle on Smith-Schuster and he sprung free. A sprint down the sidelines, a quick cut into the middle, and 69 yards later, it was 1st and goal from the New England 10 with just over 30 seconds to play. Pittsburgh used their final timeout.
How could this happen? One of the more epic Tom Brady drives of his career, about to be wiped out by a shallow cross and some poor tackling. Could this one play really cost the Patriots the number one seed?
On the very next play, Big Ben found tight end Jesse James sitting in the hole in a zone right at the goal line. The ball was thrown slightly off, as Roethlisberger seemed to think that James would be continuing his route as opposed to stopping at the line. James made the adustment, caught the ball, and fell forwards into the end zone. Just like that, the Steelers had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Or had they?
The referees went into the tent to confirm the play, as all scoring plays must be reviewed. And for some reason, they were in there for a while. Nobody really knew why; after all, James was untouched, and he clearly crossed the goal line as he fell forward. So what was taking so long?
As the replays from every possible angle showed on TV sets all across America, three things came to light:
1. James caught the ball as he was falling forward;
2. He was still in the process of securing it as he went to the ground;
3. The ball clearly moves once he hits the turf.
Still, it was a catch, right? I mean how was that not a catch?
The refs came out of the tent, turned on the microphone. The receiver did not survive the process of going to the ground, and the pass was incomplete.
Heinz Field exploded in boos. Tony Romo had no idea what was going on. The Patriots quickly got their defense back onto the field to get ready for the next play as the Steelers fumed on the sidelines.
But the refs got the call right.
According to the rules as they were written at the time, the receiver has to a) establish himself as a runner and b) survive the process of going to the ground in order for the catch to be good. Had James not caught the ball while he was falling to the turf on that play, had he caught it, planted his fee, turned, and then dove into the end zone, the call would have stood. But since he never fully established himself as a runner, and since that ball moved, incomplete pass. 2nd and Goal.
The Steelers, sure they had a TD there, were kind of caught with their pants down. The next play was a short pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey for three yards, and he was tackled in bounds as the clock continued to tick. The Steelers were out of timeouts, and it was 3rd and goal. With less than 15 seconds to play, it was basically time to spike the ball, kick the FG, and head into overtime.
More confusion at the line from Pittsburgh, New England ready to go. At the snap, Big Ben faked the spike, then attempted a quick slant to Eli Rogers in hopes of catching the Patriots off guard. Eric Rowe, the same defender who had started this whole mess, didn’t bite on the fake and stayed with Rogers every step of the way. As the pass was thrown, Rowe dove forward and batted the ball into the air, where a waiting Duron Harmon made the interception. A kneel in the end zone, a kneeldown at the 20, and the Patriots escaped with the win - and the Number One seed all but locked up.
This game, and the plays that ended it, were all the sports media could talk about all week. Was it a catch? Was it not a catch? Should it have been a catch? Did the refs hand New England another one? While nobody actually argueed that the refs got the call on the field wrong that day - because they didn’t - plenty of people argued, and have been arguing for years, that nobody has any idea what constitutes a catch anymore and nothing really makes any sense regarding one of the most basic, fundamental aspects of the game.
But it was what it was, and the Patriots came away with a huge win in one of the most exciting contests of the entire season.
This play was an easy choice for Number One, and to be honest, it’s not even close. First off, this was an INSANE game. Tons of back and forth, lead changes, big plays, and two of the best teams in the league going head to head...what a blast. Second, it was a great play by Eric Rowe, and Duron Harmon doing what Duron Harmon does at the end of games: making a game-sealing pick. Third, it showed fantastic discipline by the entire Patriots defense, as the Steelers were very disorganized at the line and there was very little time pre-snap to make any adjustments; it would have been very easy for a player to jump offsides here and screw everything. Fourth, this play completely altered the entire landscape of the AFC Playoff Picture. At the very least, the Steelers were a chip shot field goal away from tying the game and forcing overtime, with a touchdown giving them the win and the inside track to homefield advantage. But with that pick...well, we all know what happened once the postseason got underway. If things had gone differently, who knows how things would have played out.
But most importantly - in my opinion at least - this play, and the plays that preceded it, finally got the NFL to revisit the absurdity that constitutes what is and isn’t a catch in this league. And while there have been plenty of other games decided by a catch/non-catch over the years, this was the first one that involved the New England Patriots winning a game, and so we all know what that means: time for a rule change. In March of this year, league owners unanimously approved a simplified catch rule that eliminated the “going to the ground” element of the move - the exact element, amazingly enough, that ended up reversing the Jesse James call.
I’m not sure how effective the new rules will be, to be honest, but I’m all for a rule change. And since something needs to go the Patriots’ way in order for the league to address it - contact at the line, calling consecutive timeouts, trick formations, leaping over the center on field goal attempts - I’m glad this play happened. The win was great, but readdressing the catch rule was long overdue, and so this play will (hopefully) have a positive, lasting impact on the NFL going forward, which makes it an easy choice for Number One. I’d actually argue that this play was the single most important play of the entire 2017 season.
Now we just need the Patriots to win a game in 2018 because of the new helmet rule so we can get that wiped off the books ASAP.
And with that, yet another countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments comes to a close. While it didn’t end with a Lombardi Trophy, every season is amazing and unique in its own way, and 2017 was no different. I don’t think that, once this run is over, we’ll look back on this past year as one of the most memorable of the Brady/Belichick Era - which is nuts considering it ended with a 13-3 season and a trip to the Super Bowl - but it was still a full season of having the privilege of watching the greatest of all time do his thing on the field. And that’s never something to take for granted.
Check out the play here.
Full game highlights here.
To check out the final minutes of the game, from the go-ahead drive all the way to the end, click here.
Thanks so much for reading, everyone. We’re on to 2018!