Patriots Nation is having a rough week.
It wasn’t at all unexpected, and thus doesn’t sting as bad as it could have, but with Rob Gronkowski officially announcing his retirement this past week, we’re all coming to grips that we have seen our last Gronk spike. Our last diving grab in double coverage. Our last catch and run in which Gronk bowled over four or five linebackers and safeties on his way to a touchdown. Ultimately it’s the right move; Gronk’s body is breaking down and he has already inked his spot in Canton. It’s time for him to move on and enjoy the rest of his life. It still doesn’t make it any easier to see him go, though.
So I figured that I may as well rub a little salt in the wound as I continue to count down the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2018.
If you’ve been following this series over these past few years, you know that I don’t just count the wins; sometimes I’ll throw a loss in there as well, as the goal of this countdown is to recount the entire season as a whole, warts and all. And while what came in at Number 17 was an amazing moment unto itself, the game that surrounded it was as forgettable as my 8th grade semi-formal date. It also was more or less the only bright spot in what may have been New England’s worst performance of the entire year, so I won’t hold it against you if you decide to just kind of gloss this one over.
But first, the list so far:
20. Danny Etling gets half of the Giants fired with an 86 yard touchdown run.|
19. The Patriots demolish the Jets at home to secure a playoff bye.
18. Julian Edelman bounces off a Bill and into the end zone on a 4th down conversion.
Let’s all plug our noses and head over to Heinz Field.
17. Some punt team acrobatics keep the Steelers from getting a touchback.
Historically, the New England Patriots have owned the Pittsburgh Steelers for the bulk of the 21st Century. Big Ben has never beaten Tommy B in the postseason, and Brady has a solid 8-3 against Pittsburgh in the regular season. Unfortunately, one of those losses came in Week 15, when the Steelers snapped a five game losing streak against New England - and a three game losing streak in 2018 - to come away with a 17-10 victory in which the Patriots didn’t lead at any point. The whole team, for the most part, stunk; the defense continued to gel, but only forced two punts all game. The Pats only really had one decent play on offense, when a blown coverage saw Chris Hogan wide open on a crossing route that took him 63 yards into the end zone on New England’s first possession of the day. Other that that one play, New England couldn’t get anything going, and it was mostly just punts for them all afternoon.
Speaking of punts...
About halfway through the second quarter, with the Steelers up 14-7, a Patriots drive stalled yet again; the team had yet to engineer a drive longer than five plays. On 4th and 4 from their own 47, Ryan Allen boomed one down the left sideline, where gunner Jonathan Jones was able to chase it down. As it began its descent near the 10 yard line, return man Ryan Switzer waved everyone off. The ball dropped at the Steelers 11, then made a series of fast bounces towards the end zone for the touchback.
Jones, however, was right on the ball, and sprinted after it. As it crossed the goal line through the air, Jones dove, laid out, and batted the ball up higher. His effort appeared to be in vain, though, as Jones hadn’t managed to get the ball out of the end zone. Luckily, Rex Burkhead had also sprinted downfield, and just as Jones finished his dive, Burkhead also took the air, batting the ball fully out of the end zone and to the one, where it was downed by Ramone Humber. Pittsburgh would have to start right at the 1.
The Steelers would challenge the play, contesting that either Jones or Burkhead touched the goal line before making their jumps, but instant replay showed that it was a clean play all around, and the Steelers had the worst starting field position possible.
Unfortunately, this amazing show of acrobatics, this paradigm of effort and situational football, was quickly nullified, as Pittsburgh’s next three plays went for 12, 24, and 17 yards, getting the Steelers into New England territory in under two minutes. The good news is that Duron Harmon would ultimately pick Big Ben off at the 24 yard line to shirt-circuit the Steeler drive...but the offense would go three and out and give the ball right back.
This game had a Hogan catch (that was more a defensive error than anything else) and this special teams play. That’s it. Absolutely nothing else about it was memorable. The Patriots just plain stunk. I wasn’t overly upset that the Steelers won the game; they were due for one and were more or less in desperation mode at that point. What most bothered me about this game was that it was December. Furthermore, it was late December. This is the time of year when the Patriots are supposed to be playing their best football. This was also the second time this season they had lost two in a row, which was also very concerning.
However... Week 15 represented something of a gut check for the Patriots. It was a lousy performance that threatened their playoff run that absolutely could not be duplicated. This Steelers game was, in my opinion, the crossroads of the entire 2018 season. How the team responded going forward would determine how they would be remembered once the season came to an end. And that response was five straight wins and a Lombardi Trophy, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they made the right call and whatever meetings they had in-house worked out OK. Because of that, due to the importance of this game on the mental toughness of the team and the 2018 narrative as a whole, I had to put it on this list somewhere. And since the only real highlight was a spectacular special teams play, I feel that it’s right where it belongs at Number 17.
Check out the punt play here.
And if you’re feeling especially masochistic and want to replay the entire game, highlights are here.