Patriots clinch AFC East with wild win over Steelers

By Nick Shook
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New England (11-3) scored late to take the lead and staved off heartbreaking defeat in stunning fashion in a thrilling win over the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3). Here’s what we learned from a game that will go a long way toward determining playoff home-field advantage:

1. We saw the two best teams in the AFC at this point go toe-to-toe for a full 60 minutes, and for a while, it looked like Pittsburgh would simply be the better team. We forgot, of course, that Tom Bradystill quarterbacks for the Patriots, leading New England on a 77-yard drive in just 1:10 with multiple completions to Rob Gronkowski. Not to be outdone, Ben Roethlisberger‘s completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a simple drag route ended up going for 69 yards and had the Steelers on the doorstep of a win. They never crossed it — well, they did, but it was overturned — and melted down in the final 15 seconds, with Roethlisberger faking a spike, looking for the back-corner fade and forcing a pass into the middle of the field, which was deflected and intercepted by Duron Harmon. It was a thrilling, unbelievable finish in a battle between the two heavyweights of the conference. Should they meet again in Foxborough in the postseason, we see no reason to not expect a similar performance.

2. The Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the first half to what NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported is a partially torn calf. The injury will end his regular season, but with surgery not required, there’s hope Brown returns for the postseason, Rapoport added. In the meantime, Roethlisberger didn’t flinch without his star receiver, completing his next five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown on a 15-play drive that covered 78 yards and burned 8:39. Martavis Bryant stepped up to the challenge, catching two passes for 14 yards and a touchdown on the ensuing drive. He seemed to have his way with Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore on multiple occasions, both before and after the Brown injury. Any franchise would miss its all-world receiver — Pittsburgh sure did later, and will if he can’t return for the postseason — but the Steelers are also fortunate to have talent below Brown in Bryant and Smith-Schuster.

Pittsburgh could have used Brown plenty on a drive that should have been a game-clincher, and again when a victory was just a few yards away. On third-and-4 from Pittsburgh’s 25, Roethlisberger threw short to JuJu Smith-Schuster instead of having the option to toss it up to Brown for a first down that would have sealed the win. New England scored on the ensuing possession. When Pittsburgh had the ball on New England’s 7 with nine seconds left, a fade to Brown should have been Pittsburgh’s call. But without Brown available, that play too ended in failure.

“(The gameplan) changes,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “A.B. is significant. But I thought the guys did a nice job of adjusting and making plays largely. You lose somebody like A.B. and there’s an adjustment.”

3. Gronkowski’s value was on display throughout this contest. The tight end finished with nine catches (on 13 targets) for 168 yards and a successful two-point conversion. But beyond the stats, Gronkowski’s best impact is in the variety of ways New England can utilize him to beat defenses: down the seam against linebackers or smaller safeties, on fades along the boundary (especially in the end zone) and in the most crucial situations, when Brady can assuredly fire a dart into the belly of Gronkowski for a first down. New England is simply a significantly better offense with him on the field. He was key in their comeback on Sunday.

4. We don’t know what a catch is. On the same day one half of a receiver’s rear end qualified as enough to rule him down by contact in bounds for a touchdown, a tight end who seemingly caught the ball and broke the plane before reaching the ground had his catch and score overturned upon replay. Pittsburgh was the latest team to be victimized by the inconsistent and mystifying “process of the catch” ruling that continues to leave us all flummoxed. On Sunday, it determined the game, as Roethlisberger threw the game-sealing interception two plays later.

NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron tweeted a video explaining the ruling not long after the game. Take it away, Al:

5. The difference between these two teams comes down to one defensive department: pass rush. Pittsburgh’s is significantly better than New England’s and seemed to only grow stronger as the game progressed, pressuring Brady and forcing promising Patriots drives to end early. New England gave Roethlisberger way too much time to operate for much of the contest. If we needed to find an area that lacks in this Patriots team, it’s the front four — or at least it was on Sunday.

Tackling seems to be an issue for these Patriots as well, popping up when the pass rush actually did get to Roethlisberger but couldn’t come close to bringing him down, and again on runs that saw a flailing arm tackle attempt or two take them from marginal to massive gains. We can also chalk some of that up to wet, sloppy conditions, as it was raining steadily in Pittsburgh, but it needs to be improved if New England has true aspirations of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

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