What was hyped as the NFL's game of the year lived up to the billing Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh as the Patriots (11-3) pulled off a comeback and then held on for a crazy, 27-24 win over the Steelers (11-3) to move into the top spot in the AFC playoff picture with two weeks to play.
It was far from the best day for New England, which struggled at various points on both offense (going just 3-of-9 on third downs) and defense (allowing conversions on 10-of-16) third downs. The visitors trailed 17-10 at halftime and then 24-16 in the third quarter.
But Rob Gronkowski carried the offense into position for a Dion Lewis 8-yard touchdown and the tight end notched a two-point conversion to take the three-point lead with 56 seconds to play.
Still, it took the controversial replay review and overturning of a Jesse James Steelers touchdown with 28 seconds left to keep Pittsburgh from stealing the game late. Then Eric Rowe deflected a Ben Roethlisberger throw into the end zone leading to a Duron Harmon interception to seal the victory.
The win propels the Patriots into the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC heading into New England's final two games of the season, home contests against the Bills and Jets. It clinched the division title for Bill Belichick's team for the ninth straight season, with celebratory hats and t-shirts passes throughout the visitors' locker room.
On a day when the Steelers lost star wide receiver Antonio Brown to a first-half calf injury, New England did just enough to escape victorious and set things up for another postseason in which the road to the Super Bowl runs through Gillette Stadium.
It was improbable. It was ugly at times. It was Gronkowksi proving yet again he's arguably the most physically dominant pass catcher in the game today.
Most importantly it was a win.
"That was a lot of fun," Brady said. "A great team we played that played really well. It goes back and forth. You play to the end. The ball bounces weird ways, it bounced our way today."
"Our guys just kept battling," Belichick said. "They made some plays and we made some plays."
Before moving on to Sunday's Christmas Eve battle with the Bills, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the dramatic win in Pittsburgh.
Rob Gronkowski – A week after sitting with his suspension and watching the offense struggle, Gronkowski put the Patriots on his broad shoulders and carried his team to victory. He finished with nine catches for 168 yards, which doesn't even include his key two-point score in which he embarrassed safety Sean Davis on a play that essentially won the game by forcing the Steelers to go for a touchdown on its ensuing possession. After a near pick by Davis in the tight end's direction, Gronkowski got New England in position for the game-winning score with three straight catches for 26, 26 and 17 yards. A day that started with Brown getting some consideration for NFL MVP ended with Gronkowski willing Brady and the rest of the Patriots to victory. "He was doing it himself," Brady said of his tight end. "He played great."
Duron Harmon –* *It was far from a good day for the Patriots defense in almost any area. The group allowed too many plays on the ground and through the air, including JuJu Smith-Schuster's 69-yard catch-and-run for their own possible comeback. But the veteran safety made a couple key plays to buoy the late win. Sure, he closed the door with his team-high fourth interception off Rowe's deflection. But his biggest play may have come a series earlier when Harmon stopped the sensational rookie Smith-Schuster a yard short of the sticks on third-and-4 to force a punt that gave Brady/Gronkowski the ball back on a punt with 2:06 to play to set up the dramatic ending. It may not be an exaggeration to say that if Harmon doesn't make that hit/tackle, the Patriots may not win. And that would change everything heading into the postseason. That's a big tackle as well as a big interception to ensure there would be no game-tying field goal attempt or overtime.
Dion Lewis –* *The Patriots running game that had been nonexistent in Miami – where it had just 25 yards – was a bit more productive in Pittsburgh led by Lewis' 13 rushes for 67 yards (5.2). Lewis took advantage of Gronkowski's setup to give New England the lead on the 8-yard score with less than a minute to play. Lewis also had one catch for 13 yards. On a day when few players really stepped up, Lewis was a solid complementary contributor on offense.
Third down –The NFL calls it the money down. Beyond points and turnovers it's often a key indicator of success on both sides of the ball. That wasn't true on Sunday when New England was not very good on third down and yet still left Pittsburgh victorious. A week after going 0-of-11 on third down in Miami, Brady's offense was able to convert just three of its nine third downs in Pittsburgh, just once in the first half. On the other side of the ball the Patriots couldn't get off the field, allowing Pittsburgh to convert seven of nine third down chances in the first half and 10 of 16 overall. Certainly injuries and lack of depth on the front seven are a problem, as is a very much limited pass rush. New England needs to be better on third down heading into January.
PAT operation – New England appeared poised to tie the game in the third quarter on Brandin Cooks' 4-yard touchdown, but the presumed PAT never game to fruition. Joe Cardona's snap was off the mark, Ryan Allen couldn't get the ball down properly (or get the laces spun) and Stephen Gostkowski pulled the kick left to leave Pittsburgh with a 17-16 advantage. Unfortunately there is a bit of a history of missed PATs in big games over the last few years. At least on this day, as was the case last February, it didn't end up costing New England in the end.
Tom Brady –* *The G.O.A.T and top MVP candidate isn't playing his best ball down the stretch. Brady threw a costly interception to Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams at the Patriots 22 in the third quarter that set up the short field for a Le'Veon Bell score that gave Pittsburgh the 24-16 lead. It was his first pick in 301 attempts against Pittsburgh, dating back to 2005. But it was the fourth straight week that Brady has thrown a pick, first time he's done that since 2013. Brady nearly threw another interception at the start of what ended up being the game-winning drive. Overall Brady completed 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards with the touchdown to Cooks and the one pick for an 87.6 rating. Brady was only sacked twice, but was hit six times. He was affected by the rush and hits again. The biggest difference this week is that he had Gronkowski back to turn to when things got tough.
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