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Game Observations: Late-game heroics in Pittsburgh

It was a game that was hyped for more than a month, especially by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, but as is often the case when it matters most the Patriots managed to pull out a 27-24 victory.

It was Rob Gronkowski who led the way as he simply wouldn’t allow his team to lose, rallying the Patriots from an eight-point hole to set up Dion Lewis’ touchdown.

That allowed the Patriots to pull even with Pittsburgh at 11-3 and with the tiebreaker now control their fate in the battle for the top seed in the AFC.

-For the second straight game Rob Gronkowski nearly won it for the Patriots single-handedly. Of course he was forced to sit out last week’s loss in Miami serving his suspension, but as was the case in Buffalo in Week 13, Gronk once again dominated and basically represented the entirety of the Patriots offense. He finished with nine catches for 147 yards against the Bills, and he was even better considering the circumstances in Pittsburgh. With his team trailing 24-19 late in the fourth quarter he made three straight huge plays (catches for 26, 26 and 17 yards) to move the Patriots into scoring position. He finished with nine more grabs for 168 yards, and then added a two-point conversion following Dion Lewis’ go-ahead score. Steelers safety Sean Davis simply couldn’t cover Gronk, and with the tight end angered coming off his suspension, his task became even more impossible.

-The two points Gronkowski added proved to be crucial. It gave New England a 27-24 lead with just 56 seconds remaining and the Steelers then took over at their own 21. But it took Pittsburgh just one play – a 69-yard catch-and-run to JuJu Smith-Schuster – to move to the Patriots 10. Had the two-point conversion failed, the Steelers would have been simply able take three knees and kick a game-winning chip-shot field goal for the win. But with the margin at 3, the Steelers were forced to go for the touchdown to win it, and ultimately that led to Duron Harmon’s game-clinching pick in the end zone off Eric Rowe’s deflection.

-There always seems to be lingering issues surrounding several key Patriots victories and this one in Pittsburgh was no exception. After taking the lead with less than a minute left the defense allowed the Patriots to get into position to win it. On first-and-goal from the 10, the Steelers appeared to win it when Jesse James caught a pass inside the 1 and lunged into the end zone for what looked like the winning touchdown. But replay overturned the call, ruling that the tight end didn’t control the ball to the ground. Replays showed the ball did move slightly when James reached it over the goal line but it wasn’t obvious if he lost control. In any event, referee Tony Corrente ruled that it was incomplete and gave the Patriots new life. Ben Roethlisberger then curiously threw short of the goal line with no timeouts, moving the ball just 3 yards but keeping the clock running. With the clock moving inside 10 seconds, Roethlisberger appeared to fake a spike and then tried to force one across the middle to Eli Rogers. Rowe made a tremendous diving deflection and Harmon picked off the carom for the win.

-Tom Brady tossed an interception for the fourth straight game when his third-down flip in the third quarter was picked off by inside linebacker Vince Williams. It’s the first time since the middle of 2013 that Brady tossed interceptions in four straight games. It was also Brady’s first interception of any kind against Pittsburgh since 2005, a span on 301 pass attempts.

-The Patriots once again were forced to deal with some missing pieces in terms of personnel. On offense, wide receiver Chris Hogan was downgraded to out with a shoulder injury. He returned in Miami after missing the previous four games and was held to just one catch for 1 yard and looked like he was at less than 100 percent. The Patriots signed 6-3 wideout Kenny Britt earlier in the week and he was active against the Steelers.

-On defense, Trey Flowers (ribs) returned after missing two games but linebacker Kyle Van Noy missed his second straight game after trying to fight through a calf injury in Buffalo in Week 13. His absence left a void on the edge as Eric Lee once again was forced into full-time duty. That added to the problems in run defense because defensive tackle Alan Branch missed the game with a knee injury.

-Those absences on defense really showed themselves in the first, even after Pittsburgh was forced to deal with life without Antonio Brown. The wideout was lost to a left calf injury early in the second quarter and did not return, but that didn’t stop the Steelers from controlling the ball throughout. That was particularly evident on the final drive of the first half when the Steelers went 78 yards on 15 plays and chewed up 8:39 off the clock. The drive ended with a touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant and left just :20 on the clock. Thanks mostly to that tremendous drive, Pittsburgh finished the first 30 minutes with an enormous 19:53-10:07 edge in time of possession as the Steelers went 7 of 9 on third down.

-That continued throughout the day, particularly when it came to defending Le’Veon Bell both as a runner and receiver. Bell ran 24 times for 117 yards and added five catches for 48 yards, four of which resulted in first downs. The edges were a problem again as Bell ripped off several productive runs outside the tackles. That is understandable based on the personnel available, as mentioned above, but it’s hard to imagine the 400-plus yards the Patriots allowed, 143 of which came on the ground, being good enough to win many games.

-The coverage wasn’t much better as even with Brown out of the lineup the secondary struggled. Malcolm Butler started the game covering Brown and surrendered a pair of completions for 24 before the wideout left. Stephon Gilmore really struggled with Bryant, allowing four catches on six targets for 59 yards and a touchdown. Among the completions was a 39-yarder down the right sideline behind Gilmore. Rowe looked like he was still shaky off the groin injury that caused him to miss several games and he trailed Smith-Schuster (six catches, 114 yards) much of the game and also allowed Rogers’ 18-yard touchdown early on. Give Rowe tons of credit for staying in the game, however, as it was his tremendous diving deflection that allowed Harmon to intercept Roethlisberger’s pass in the end zone to seal it.

-The Patriots went with Cam Fleming as the starter at right tackle while LaAdrian Waddle continues to work his way back from an ankle injury. Waddle replaced Fleming late in the first half and then again early in the third quarter before the Patriots switched back to the original lineup. It’s possible the coaches are trying to gauge Waddle’s health and figure out if he can stand up to a full workload physically.

-The Steelers got a huge lift by the presence of injured linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was in the luxury suite inside Heinz Field and received a huge ovation. Shazier was seriously injured making a tackle in a Monday night win in Cincinnati a few weeks ago and underwent spinal stabilization surgery, ending his season and putting his career in jeopardy. The emotional lift was palpable, but unfortunately for the hosts they certainly would have rather have had the linebacker covering Gronkowski, as he would have if healthy.

-The Patriots appeared to suffer another injury when running back Rex Burkhead was lost for the game with a knee injury in the third quarter. He appeared to be in significant pain on the play, and even the Steelers were waving frantically toward the Patriots sideline to alert their medical staff. He went to the locker room and was announced as out immediately. That could mean the return of Mike Gillislee, who has been inactive for the last six games. James White also may have suffered a leg/knee injury as he was gimpy following a catch in the first half. The dependable running back was able to return but managed just two catches for 8 yards in limited duty.

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