Five takeaways from an epic Patriots win that sets them up to enter the playoffs as the AFC’s top seed — but won’t be forgotten until long after this season is over…
VICTORY, BUT NOT QUITE A CONFIDENCE BOOST
At the end of the day, the scoreboard inside Heinz Field showed New England 27, Pittsburgh 24. And the NFL standings now list the Patriots above the Steelers, because while both teams are 11-3, it’s the Pats who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. If things hold, when these teams meet again it will be in the AFC championship game, and that tilt will take place at Gillette Stadium.
However, even home-field advantage may not be enough to send Patriots fans into that rematch carrying confidence based on what happened Sunday.
Yes, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski put together an epic drive to put their team ahead in the final minute. And yes, Duron Harmon came up with an interception in the end zone to clinch the victory (along with the AFC East championship). But everything leading up to – and even in between those moments – was full of red flags for Bill Belichick’s team.
Even though the Steelers lost star receiver Antonio Brown early, the Patriots defense had major trouble with Ben Roethlisberger’s offense. New England couldn’t get off the field, allowing the Steelers to convert 10 of their first 14 third-down tries, and to keep the ball for more than 35 minutes. Even without Brown to worry about, New England had trouble with Pittsburgh’s other receivers, as JuJu Smith-Schuster had 114 receiving yard and Martavis Bryant hauled in a touchdown while looking like a tough cover. New England had trouble curtailing the run, too, with Le’Veon Bell rushing 24 times for 117 yards.
The Patriots offense had limited opportunities because of the defense’s struggles, and made enough plays to score 27 points, but the Steelers had success rattling Brady with pressure. They forced an interception by getting to him in the third quarter, then notched a sack to force the Pats to settle for a field goal in the middle of the fourth.
Then there was the controversial play on which the game was decided. If tight end Jesse James had simply secured the ball then rolled into the end zone, the AFC goes through Pittsburgh. Instead he reached for the goal line, let the ball hit the ground in the process, and gave the Patriots life. Of course, New England wouldn’t have been in that position if it hadn’t let Smith-Schuster skirt the sideline and go 69 yards on a shallow cross with 36 seconds left.
Again, give credit to the Patriots for creating Dion Lewis’s 8-yard touchdown run, Gronkowski’s two-point catch, and Harmon’s pick. Time and again, this team finds a way to seize its opportunities. Maybe they’ll do that when the chance before them is the chance to go to the Super Bowl, too. But, especially if Pittsburgh was to have Brown back from his partially torn calf by then, at this point it’s hard to say New England is the better team. Even if the standings do.
GRONK MAKES AMENDS
If Gronkowski cost the Patriots a game by getting suspended and thereby missing last week’s trip to Miami, it’s even now. Because the Patriots don’t win Sunday in Pittsburgh without a monster performance from their star tight end.
Gronkowski’s retribution included nine catches for 168 yards, but that only tells part of the story. On New England’s game-winning drive, he made a pretty shoestring grab among the three catches he made to move the ball from their own 23 all the way to Pittsburgh’s 8, then after Lewis took it in from there, Gronkowski looked uncoverable in separating from his defender and catching the two-point conversion near the corner of the end zone. It seemed as though Brady didn’t even consider another option on that play, or on the final series.
And as dominant as Gronkowski was on that possession, he was just as integral in keeping the Patriots in the game to begin with. Following a pedestrian first half, he made seven catches for 135 yards after halftime. That production came on 10 targets. By comparison, when throwing to other receivers, Brady went 5-for-12 for a total of 33 yards after intermission.
“He was doing it himself,” Brady said. “He’s open, he gets it. It was a great game by him. He played so great.”
Here’s one more way to consider his greatness: Brady hooked up with Brandin Cooks on the first offensive series for a 43-yard gain. The Patriots had other plays in the rest of the game that gained more than 13 yards. Those included seven Gronkowski catches, and a 23-yard pass interference penalty Pittsburgh committed to keep him from converting a third and 3.
Six days after the Pats literally couldn’t move the chains in Miami – going 0-for-11 in such third down situations – the big tight end certainly made amends.
DEFENSE NOT MAKING PLAYS
Eric Rowe deflected Roethlisberger’s throw, then Harmon squeezed it. It’s his fourth of the season, and this one saved at least a trip to overtime. No doubt, it was an enormous play.
But making big plays remains a bit of a concern for these Patriots.
Before that deciding play, the Patriots were in line for a fourth game this season in which they didn’t come up with a takeaway. As it is now, they have eight games in which they’ve generated one turnover or less. They entered Sunday ranked in the middle of the pack league-wide with 17 turnovers, and with 11 interceptions, though Harmon’s was the third on a ball thrown into the end zone from outside the red zone in the final 30 seconds of play. They have two others on throws made in the fourth quarter by quarterbacks trailing by at least three scores. And six of the picks have come off QBs who began the year as a backup.
Sunday the struggle to make big plays extended to third downs, as well as missed opportunities to wrap up when putting themselves in position for a field-tilting sack. Last week that described a play from Jordan Richards, and Sunday Richards erred when in position again, failing to steer Smith-Schuster out of bounds and putting his team in a position where only an overturned touchdown and fortuitous bounce could salvage things.
GOSTKOWSKI IN BIG GAMES
The numbers verify that Stephen Gostkowski is in the midst of a great season. He entered Week 15 making more than 91 percent of his field goal tries for the fourth time in his career. And he hadn’t missed an extra point since Week 2 – until Sunday, when a third-quarter bid to tie the score instead sailed wide.
The snap-hold-kick execution wasn’t smooth, and probably contributed to his latest miskick. But, regardless, it continues a troubling trend for Gostkowski’s record on point-after tries in big games.
The NFL moved extra points backward in 2015, making them the equivalent of a 33-year field goal. That proved no trouble for the Patriots’ mainstay, who made all 52 of his extra points that season. But in the AFC championship at the end of that season, he missed a costly PAT that forced New England to attempt a two-point conversion after scoring in the final seconds of regulation. (It failed, and they lost.)
Last season, Gostkowski missed an extra point during the regular season in a big game at Pittsburgh. Then he missed, for the second straight year, in the AFC title game. Then he missed another in the Super Bowl, and if the Pats hadn’t prepared multiple two-point plays, the greatest comeback in history could’ve been undone by that miss.
The Patriots’ excellence on two point conversions came up huge again Sunday, because if Gronkowski doesn’t snare Brady’s lob, the Steelers are running clock to set up for a game-winning field goal as regulation wanes, and kicking a chip shot to make New England pay for the missed point. Again, it might not entirely be on the kicker. But in a game with a ton of the line, and loaded with anticipation, that operation failed again. And until the trend is broken, it will remain a concern.
PIT’s first scoring drive – targeted Gilmore twice, incomplete; 3rd+10 to Rowe on Juju; then later targeted Rowe on TD pass to Rodgers
IT’S NOT OVER YET
The Patriots now control their own destiny, and may not need to travel again. If they beat the Bills and Jets on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, the only game outside of Foxborough they’d play the rest of the season would be Super Bowl XLII in Minneapolis.
New England will be heavily favored in both games, too. But next Sunday’s game against the Bills is no walkover. Buffalo enters with a chance to fortify their playoff position, which is good if the Pats were concerned a meaningless game might turn the Bills’ focus to getting revenge on Gronkowski, but ensures that the visitors will be focused on putting up a legitimate fight.
If the Pats can survive that, though, the Jets shouldn’t be an issue a week later. It’s nearly impossible to envision Bryce Petty beating Brady in a game that means anything.
New England does likely need to win out, though, because Pittsburgh probably won’t be challenged. Next week they face the checked-out Texans (who’ll be fresh off a 45-7 waxing at Jacksonville), then they’ll take on the winless Browns a week later. The Steelers look like a lock to finish 13-3 – so the pressure’s not off the Patriots yet.