The more boastful among us might be tempted to point and laugh at the Pittsburgh Steelers like Rob Gronkowski did to that hapless, hopeless defensive back he overwhelmed to catch the game-tying 2-point conversion with 56 seconds left Sunday.
His name is Sean Davis, and he was the same Steeler who dropped a potentially game-clinching interception earlier during the drive. Turns out he became the victim of something even crueler than fate. He was the victim of the ain’t-no-stopping-us-now Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski combo. Giving Brady a second chance is a fine way for a defensive back to end up with first-degree burns.
Davis’s role in the outcome was overlooked in all of the other improbable plot twists that occurred in the Patriots’ stirring rally for a 27-24 victory. I’d believe it if you told me Davis was still prone in the end zone right this moment waiting for someone to peel him off the turf and get him home.
The somewhat less obnoxious among us might merely dabble in mockery. It’s irresistible when a team that is led by a 14-year veteran quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) who has won two Super Bowls and a coach (Mike Tomlin) who has never had a losing record in 11 seasons turns into a collective puddle when the game is on the line.
But the Steelers’ performance in the final minute stands as a reminder of how difficult it is to remain poised in the decisive moments when everything seems to be accelerating around you. That may be the greatest collective strength of Brady and coach Bill Belichick. Sometimes they lose. But they almost never melt under the spotlight.
The Patriots won and the Steelers lost not because of the correct interpretation of a stupid rule that turned Steelers tight end Jesse James potential winning catch into an incomplete pass followed by an endless, boring debate-show ballad about what “surviving the ground’’ really means.
The Patriots won and the Steelers lost because Roethlisberger got cute, faked a spike, and threw an ill-considered pass that was deflected by Eric Rowe and intercepted by Duron Harmon to end the game. Roethlisberger tried to outthink the Patriots. He outthought himself.
But the most satisfying way to celebrate Patriots victories like this one is to resist dwelling on the opponent’s failings and instead focus on savoring the Patriots’ latest feat. This was one of those Patriots performances where you got to bed thinking about it (perhaps in your pricey but presumably toasty high-tech TB12 pajamas) and wake up with it still on your mind and a smile still on your face.
It’s almost as fun to rewind it, relive it, and try to put it into context as it is to watch it happen in real time. So let’s look for some context within one question: Where does this rank among the Patriots’ most memorable regular-season victories since Brady became the starter during Week 2 of the 2001 season?
It was, almost unfathomably, the 53rd fourth-quarter comeback in Brady’s career. That includes the postseason, and of course the win-or-wait-till-next-year games are the most important. The Snow Bowl and the Super Bowl victories over the Rams, Panthers, Seahawks and Falcons all rank among the most thrilling games in NFL history.
But there have been numerous Patriots gems during the regular-season as well during this prolonged dynasty, and Sunday’s game ranks among the best.
Where? And in what order? I spent Monday morning thinking about this, and I’ve revamped this list of the most memorable regular-season wins in this era a couple of times. But I think I’ve got the right order now:
1. Week 13, 2003: Patriots 38, at Colts 34 — Bethel Johnson took a kick 92 yards for a touchdown just before halftime and Willie McGinest buried Edgerrin James on fourth down from the 1-yard-line with 14 seconds left as the Patriots improved to 10-2 for the first time in their history.
2. Week 12, 2013: At Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (overtime) — The Patriots lost fumbles on their first three possessions, falling behind 24-0 to Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Patriots countered with 31 straight points, Manning led a tying TD drive, but Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 31-yard field goal to win it.
3. Week 13, 2007: Patriots 27, at Ravens 24 — Brady finds Jabar Gaffney for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left after Baltimore appeared to have the Patriots stopped on fourth down twice, only to have the plays negated by a Ravens timeout just before the snap and a false start penalty. The win kept the Patriots undefeated at 12-0.
4. Week 9, 2003: Patriots 30, at Broncos 26 — Trailing, 24-23, with less than three minutes left and facing fourth down from their 1-yard line, Belichick ordered the long snapper to hike the ball through the end zone for a safety and a chance to punt from the 20. The punt landed inside the other 20, the Patriots defense forced a punt, and Brady soon found David Givens for the winning touchdown. Next-level thinking, even by Belichick’s standards.
5. Week 15, 2017: Patriots 27, Steelers 24 — There were others considered here: Kembrell Thompkins’s catch to beat the Saints in ’13, Troy Brown’s 82-yard catch and run to beat the Dolphins in overtime in ’03, Randy Moss’s catch to beat the Giants and secure 16-0 in the ’07 regular-season finale. That’s a lot of memorable catches.
But the choice has to be the one you just witnessed. Don’t call it recency bias. Call it an appreciation for how long Brady and Belichick have been pulling off these remarkable heists. Remember to savor this one. At least until the next one.