Every time a player or team takes the field there is a chance for a game-changing play.
Those plays can come at any point from the opening kickoff to the final snap.
They can come in each of the three phases.
They can be executed by Hall of Fame-bound stars or lesser-known complementary players.
New England's exciting 27-24 victory over the Steelers Sunday evening in Pittsburgh showed one team that was more than ready to make those game-changing plays at various points and one that wasn't.
During his traditional Monday morning day-after-game conference call with the media, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick expressed great pride in his team's readiness to come up big when called upon.
That wasn't just about Tom Brady feeding Rob Gronkowski the ball on the way to the game-winning touchdown. It wasn't only Eric Rowe deflecting Ben Roethlisberger's final pass leading to Duron Harmon's game-sealing interception.
"There were so many big plays in that game as you go back through the fourth quarter of the game and really every play is a huge play," Belichick said of a game that he somewhat compared to the historic win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. "The difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter, maybe call it from the second half of the fourth quarter on – the last seven, eight minutes – a change in any one of those plays could have affected the outcome of the game. So, that just to me showed how competitive the game was and how critical every single little thing is – each play, each player, each call, each situation. But, it was a great football game."
And in the end, a great win for a Patriots team that clinched the AFC East title and slid into the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture with two games to play.
"You never know which ones are going to come up, but being able to execute under pressure when they do takes the other 59 minutes and 30 seconds or whatever – not saying it's meaningless – but it takes all those plays out of the game and now it just comes down to one play or one situation or one short period of time, a few seconds, and that determines the outcome of the game.
"Situational football is so critical at this time of year, and fortunately we were able to make the plays we needed to make."
Beyond general praise for his team's ability to come up big when it mattered most, Belichick highlighted the execution on the Steelers final fake spike, a big Harmon play that wasn't his interception and addressed what could be a changing running back depth chart due to injury.
1. "Just the awareness":While the Steelers fell victim to some confusion on offense at the conclusion of the game, New England's defense was ready for whatever Pittsburgh had to offer with the game on the line at the goal line with less than 10 seconds to play. Facing third-and-goal from the 7 and needing just a field goal to send things to overtime, Roethlisberger apparently wasn't on the same page with his coaches. Though he called for a spike to stop the clock, coaches expressed their desire to run a play. What ensued was what looked like a fake spike play and ill-advised throw targeting Eli Rogers in the end zone that concluded with the Harmon pick.
Pittsburgh seemingly wilted under the pressure of the situation while the Patriots executed. Belichick was asked about how exactly his team had prepared for that spot in a big game.
"It's just the awareness of those two plays – the spike and the fake spike," Belichick explained. "As a spike, we really can't do anything about that play but we can play the fake spike if they throw it. That's what we try to do, is defend what really can hurt us which is the fake spike play. If they spike it then that's really, I mean, not a play that we can affect too much."
2. Harmon's hit "a big play":Harmon's interception ended the game for the Patriots defense. But the veteran safety made an even more impressive play a few minutes earlier that actually jumpstarted the New England comeback.
The Steelers led 24-19 with the ball at their own 25 facing a third-and-4 with 2:23 to play. Roethlisberger hit impressive rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster crossing the field. But Harmon came up for a big hit and with some help from Rowe and linebacker Eric Lee held the elusive playmaker at yard short of the sticks to force a punt. Without the hit and stop Brady and Gronkowski may have never gotten their chance for heroics and New England could have returned home with a loss.
"That was a big play," Belichick agreed. "They motioned into a bunch set and we were in a kind of combination type of a coverage so that we wouldn't get picked with the tight splits, and so we backed off and created a little bit of space which allowed them to get through. He kind of popped open when he came underneath. He was the outside receiver. He came underneath the two inside receivers and, again, we were backed off and there was some space there. He caught the ball and Duron came up and made a good hit but Smith-Schuster is a strong runner and he was struggling to get away from Duron and from Rowe. Actually, it looked like Eric Lee came back off the pass rush and really wrapped him up and got him on the ground. I mean, it was a big hit by Harmon to keep him from getting the first down, but I don't think the play was really over until Lee really got him. Again, just good hustle, good effort and good awareness certainly on Duron's part to make sure that he could make the tackle, make the play short of the first down, which he did. That was a big play for us."
3. Burkhead's status uncertain; Gillislee ready to go: Running back Rex Burkhead limped off with a knee injury in the third quarter Sunday evening at Heinz Field and was almost immediately announced as out for the remainder of the game. Afterwards, though, reports from ESPN indicated that the knee injury may not be severe and could be more of a week-to-week issue.
With Burkhead possibly sidelined, it could be a chance for Mike Gillislee to get back into game action. The first-year Patriot has been a healthy scratch for each of the last six weeks. Belichick was asked how the veteran restricted free agent addition has handled his limited role after opening his New England career with double-digit carries in seven of the first eight weeks.
In the midst of his answer about Gillislee, Belichick also offered a minor update on Burkhead's status.
"Mike's very consistent. He works hard all of the time," Belichick began. "We'll see how it goes with Rex. I'm not sure exactly what the extent of his injury is. We'll see how that goes. I think at this point all of our players have been told and need to know that they need to be ready to go every week. We need everybody and it could change from one week to the next or somebody's role could change within the game very quickly. We're at that time of year. Hopefully, whatever the circumstances are, however it unfolds, we'll be ready to do that and make those adjustments. Our entire team works hard, worked really hard this week. I think everybody was prepared and ready to go for whatever they were asked to do, as was Pittsburgh. Again, they're a good team and we made some plays and they made some plays. We just battled back and forth. It'll be that way going forward. Everybody needs to be ready every week."