PITTSBURGH - Let's face it: This was a playoff game. It had that feel all week, and especially when the Patriots arrived in the Steel City this weekend. The raw, winter weather, the caffeinated anticipation around town… everything pointed to this being a big game in a setting that was primed for it.
"Actually, it started out in practice," cornerback Eric Rowe maintained afterward. "We all knew how much this game meant to us and the Steelers. So, from the start of the game, we knew it was going to be a battle all the way to the last second. We were mentally prepared for that."
Not only was this easily the most interesting and consequential game of Week 15, it also could be the biggest, most important regular season game of 2017. Two of the NFL's winningest franchises battling it out for the right to claim the top spot in the AFC playoffs? What could be better, even if you aren't a fan of either team.
Coming into this latest Steelers-Patriots iteration, most analysts expected both offenses to dominate the opposing squads' defenses. And for the most part, they did. But on the game's opening drive, the Patriots came up with a huge third-down stop to force a Pittsburgh punt. New England promptly took the ball and marched 77 yards in just 6 plays, finishing with Rex Burkhead's 1-yard plunge into the end zone to put the Patriots on the scoreboard first.
New England couldn't contain Ben Roethlisberger and his Steelers on the ensuing Pittsburgh possession, as the Steelers responded immediately with a touchdown drive of their own, aided in large part by success on a handful of third downs. Meanwhile, as a steady rain fell, the Pittsburgh defense poured the pressure on Tom Brady, taking him down and eventually leading to a Patriots punt on their second go-round.
Already minus their defensive leader, Ryan Shazier, due to a serious injury, Pittsburgh then lost one of its primary offensive weapons when wide receiver and league MVP candidate Antonio Brown suffered a partially torn left calf at the 13:00 mark of the second quarter.
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in a regular season game at Heinz Field on Sunday, December 17, 2017.
Roethlisberger was then sacked on the very next play by defensive ends Trey Flowers and rookie Deatrich Wise, but Pittsburgh still managed a 51-yard field goal to claim its first lead of the day. The Patriots counter-punched with a 32-yard Stephen Gostkowski boot to knot the score again.
On what turned out to be the final drive of the half, the Brown-less Steelers leaned heavily on their all-star ball carrier, Le'Veon Bell, both as a runner and pass catcher, to mount a 15-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that devoured nearly all of the final nine minutes of the first half.
It seemed the Steelers' thinking was two-fold. Without Brown, it made sense to focus more on Bell, which also consumed considerable amounts of clock and kept the Patriots and Brady from possessing the ball.
New England absorbed the body blow, though, by taking the second-half kickoff and cobbling together a 75-yard touchdown drive of its own, but Gostkowski pulled the crucial game-tying extra point wide left.
Down a point and driving for a potential go-ahead score, Brady picked a bad time to throw his first pick against Pittsburgh since 2005. Of course, deep in New England territory, the Steelers again rang up Bell several more times, and his 3-yard TD run helped give his team an 8-point advantage
The rains let up a bit by the end of the third quarter, but Pittsburgh's defense didn't. It harassed Brady just enough in the second half to thwart a few would-be drive-extending plays. Another Gostkowski field goal pulled New England to within five points of Pittsburgh, but the Steelers continued to pound away at the Patriots' defense - and the clock - with Bell, who gashed the Patriots with 117 yards on the ground and another 48 through the air.
But in "playoff" games like this, it's often the team with the ball last who finds a way to win.
"We knew it was going to come down to the end. We knew it was going to be a battle," smiled wide receiver Danny Amendola. "We got it done at the end. We're happy."
In dramatic - and bizarre - fashion, New England won its ninth consecutive AFC East title. That wouldn't have been possible, however, without a surreal ending that saw the Patriots climb back from an 8-point deficit thanks in large part to tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose Herculean effort inspired his teammates on both sides of the ball.
New England needed an answer to Bell, and they found one, as they often do, in Gronkowski. Coming back from a one-game NFL suspension of his own doing, Gronk had to atone for his absence a week earlier, when the Patriots seemed completely out of synch offensively without him in Miami. He responded with one of the most jaw-dropping displays of his future-Hall-of-Fame career. His nine catches against Pittsburgh Sunday were almost all big ones, including a pivotal two-point conversion at the end.
"Hey, man, I say let him go," safety/co-captain Duron Harmon chuckled when recollecting Gronkowski's night. "[Tom Brady]'s the G.O.A.T [greatest of all time at his position], but Gronk is turning into one. The best players play best in situations like that."
"I'll probably never forget it," Rowe said of Gronkowski's career-best yardage performance (168) coupled with his enthusiastic celebratory paroxysms after his last few catches on the final scoring drive. "He literally took over the drive and put the team on his back. That's the kind of player he is and what we expect from him. He works just as hard in practice, so, it's not that much of a surprise."
What was a surprise was how the Patriots seemed to throw it all away by letting the Steelers get to their end zone less than half a minute later. Rowe was partly to blame for allowing the Steelers to move the football in one play from deep in their own end to within 10 yards of the Patriots' end zone. Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James's 10-yard touchdown reception from Ben Roethlisberger was then overturned after officials reviewed the play and decided that James didn't control the ball sufficiently as he landed in the end zone. The pass was ruled incomplete.
"Once I saw the replay, I did see the ball move, but I wasn't too sure if he'd been touched," Rowe professed moments afterward. "So, it could have gone either way. Obviously, I'm glad it went our way."
"When I saw the replay on the Jumbotron," added Amendola, "I felt the same way [as the officials]. The ball was moving on the ground. Then the defense came up big."
With the Patriots holding a tenuous 3-point lead, Roethlisberger attempted a fake-spike throw into the end zone two plays later as time was running out. Rowe stepped in front of the intended receiver and tipped the ball in the air. Harmon was in the right place at the right time to snatch it in the end zone and kneel down for the touchback that secured one of the most remarkable wins in a team history loaded with them.
"A lot of urgency on that last play," Rowe told us. "I saw [Roethlisberger] rushing to the ball. I was the star [third corner] and was like, 'Man, no one is [covering] on the outside [receiver]. I need to go on the outside and cover him up. Everyone was kind of in panic mode trying to get lined up and I see Big Ben fake it. I was like, 'Oh, they're running the play.' Got my eyes back on the receiver. I noticed he was doing a slant/pop pass. I didn't think he was going to throw it because I was on [the receiver's] hip.
"When he threw it, I thought, 'I just have to break this up.' It tipped up, and I honestly thought they caught it. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' Then we came down with it and I was ecstatic."
Joy filled the Patriots locker room inside Heinz Field as the team reveled in one of the more memorable (and sure-to-be controversial) finishes the NFL has seen.
The Tuck Rule. Super Bowls XLIX and LI. Now this.
"It's what we talk about each and every week: being a mentally tough football team," Harmon continued. "Being able to play through any situation. That's all it was - us keeping our composure, trying to find a way to win, not getting too down."
It's hard to fathom that New England managed to pull this one out the way it did. More importantly, this victory also allowed the Patriots to secure a head-to-head tie-breaker edge over the Steelers in the crowded AFC playoff seeding picture. With two games to play in the regular season, New England currently owns the No. 1 spot in the conference. But they know their work is not yet finished. Two crucial games remain on the regular season schedule to maintain their slim lead over Pittsburgh in the playoff standings.
For now, though, they can take a moment to process - and enjoy - what happened Sunday evening in Pittsburgh.
"It's great. AFC champs. It's my first one," a beaming Stephon Gilmore remarked as he reflected on his first season with New England after coming over from division foe Buffalo, whom the Patriots host next weekend. "We'll take it one game at a time and keep winning. It's a great feeling. [The Patriots] have been beating me my whole career, so, I'm glad I'm on this side now."
"Hat and tee shirt. Yup, we love it!" Amendola exclaimed. "That's why we play. It's a stepping stone in the right direction. We'll get back to work this week. We've got a good [Buffalo] team coming in our home. We'll be ready for them. When we land in Providence, back to work."