PITTSBURGH — The greatness of the New England Patriots is about so many things, and a good number of them were on vivid display Sunday evening in Pittsburgh as the frantic finish of the most significant game of the NFL season thus far unfolded.
Tom Brady led another clutch drive. Rob Gronkowski made tough catches at key moments. And the meticulous preparation demanded by Bill Belichick meant that, when the outcome finally came down to a single play, the Patriots seemed to have a better idea of what the Steelers were going to do than the Steelers did.
As a result, the Patriots have the upper hand in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, thanks to Sunday’s 27-24 triumph. A Patriots-Steelers rematch in the AFC championship game is, to some, a foregone conclusion. And if it happens, it will happen in Foxborough, Mass.
The Steelers couldn’t beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh. What reason is there to believe that they can beat the Patriots at New England with the stakes even higher? Perhaps an eighth Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots — and a sixth Super Bowl triumph — with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback wasn’t secured in the rain Sunday at Heinz Field. But the Patriots did seem to move a significant step closer.
The Patriots, being the Patriots, weren’t ready to declare that. They weren’t ready to declare much of anything. There was some talk in the Steelers’ locker room of the rematch in the AFC championship game that appears so likely to come. The Patriots? Not so much.
“We have to take care of a lot of business ourselves first,” Brady said. “That’s a long time down the road. We’ll keep fighting and keep battling. I’m proud of our team. I know we can do better than we did today. It wasn’t perfect out there. But that’s NFL football.”
The Belichick effect was seen when the Steelers tried a fake-spike throw for the end zone on third down in the final seconds, rather than actually spiking the football to stop the clock and then kick a tying field goal on fourth down. For the Steelers, it was a harried scene as they scrambled to get organized and figure out what to do. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ended up throwing a pass into heavy traffic in the end zone, resulting in a game-sealing interception by New England’s Duron Harmon with five seconds remaining.
“It wasn’t a fake spike,” Roethlisberger said. “I was yelling, ‘Clock it!’ because I felt like that was the thing to do was clock it, get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline: ‘Don’t clock it! Don’t clock it!’ Well, at that time, everyone thinks it’s a clock. So you don’t have time to try and get everyone lined up. So I tried to — Eli [Rogers] saw that. He kind of ran a quick slant in there. At that time, you’ve just got to try to make a play. I didn’t make a good enough throw.”
But the Patriots? They knew what was coming.
“I think all the great quarterbacks do that,” safety Devin McCourty said. “If they can catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they’re gonna try to do it. So you could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to line guys up.”
That’s because the Patriots practice fake-spike scenarios, just as they cover just about every other conceivable circumstance.
“It comes up in our two-minute preparation. . . . Our offense does it sometimes,” Belichick said. “So it comes up there four, five or six times, maybe.”
The Steelers’ fake-spike-gone-bad came after the NFL’s catch rule resurfaced to wipe out a would-be go-ahead touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James. That would have capped a stunningly swift two-play, 79-yard drive for the Steelers that would have answered the five-play, 77-yard drive orchestrated by Brady for the go-ahead touchdown that actually counted. Brady added a two-point conversion pass to Gronkowski for a three-point lead with 56 seconds left.
“Even when we scored, I knew we needed the two-point conversion and that was big,” Brady said. “Gronk made a great play on that. And then 55 seconds [actually 52 when the Pittsburgh offense took its first snap after the kickoff return], whatever they got it with, that’s still a lot of time. They hit the one big play and then before you know it, they’re knocking on our end zone’s door. [Roethlisberger] made a good throw and they just couldn’t come up with it, then the great tackle on second down on the crossing route. They tried to fake-spike it on third down. But our guys were aware and made a great play.”
The Patriots were back to being the Patriots on the heels of their surprising defeat last Monday night in Miami. Perhaps that could be attributed to the fact that losing in Miami practically has become an annual ritual for the Patriots. Or maybe it was simply because of the absence of Gronkowski, as the tight end missed the loss to the Dolphins while serving his one-game suspension by the NFL for his hit on the Buffalo Bills’ Tre’Davious White.
“These guys are my teammates and they’re great to be around,” Gronkowski said Sunday. “I definitely missed them and it’s great to be back.”
Gronkowski’s nine-catch, 168-yard performance against the Steelers reinforced the significant difference that his presence makes for Brady and the New England offense. He was targeted 13 times by Brady, six more times than any other receiver.
“Even when Rob is covered, he’s open because he is so long and he has such great range and reach,” Belichick said. “If you can put the ball away from the player who’s covering him even though he’s close, Rob can get it and the other guy can’t.”
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