*Not to go all History of the Patriots 101 on you, but when you’ve been in seven Super Bowls that were so close a referee couldn’t have slid a folded up piece of paper between them, there will be certain moments in certain regular season games where the fate of the world is determined. Just by way of examples: In 2001 when David Patten was knocked out in overtime and lost a fumble, but on review they saw that his unconscious head was out of bounds and foot was touching the ball, so the Pats retained possession and won the game. The 2003 goal line stand in Indy that forced the Colts to come to Foxboro in January. Chris Harper muffing a punt against the Broncos that gave them homefield in the AFC championship game. Well this game had dozens of such moments. The kind that when we’re writing the history of the 21st century Patriots (which I am in the process of doing, stay tuned), this one will be up there in the pantheon of the all time great, important, impactful regular season games.
*That said, it also one of those games that was so excruciating painful to watch, I find myself genuinely envying people who are capable of not giving a shit. Those stable, well-adjusted souls blessed with the ability to casually watch or ignore it altogether and just go about their lives, addressing Christmas cards or reading novels or whatever. Because from the opening kick until the Duron Harmon interception, I didn’t have a nanosecond of fun. But that’s the price you pay for success. This team doesn’t have the luxury of insignificant games. Ever.
*With that as a preamble, let’s begin at the end. Because the last three plays said everything about why right now the playoffs are set to go through New England and not Pittsburgh. Steelers fans and their jackals in the media can bitch all they want about Jesse James’ touchdown being overturned, but they’ll have to come early, get a wrist band and then wait in line. They’ll be making the same argument that was made about Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson and literally dozens of others because the rule is applied the same way all the time. You might think it’s a catch and want it to be a catch but when they never, ever call it a catch, guess what it stops being? (Hint: It begins with a “c.”) And all the bellyaching we’ll be subjected to the rest of the way will ignore the larger issue, which is why James didn’t simply secure the ball and set up his offense at the 1 with plenty of time to punch it in. Instead he took a chance, played Hero Ball and it cost him the catch.
*Next we had the checkdown to Darrius Heyward-Bey where Malcolm Butler had the presence of mind and tackling skills to wrap him up in bounds and keep the clock running. Which then set off the wild scramble by the Steelers and a terrible decision to try the fake spike. By Ben Roethlisberger’s own admission, his headset was a song of noise and confusion being sung by Todd Haley, and he made the decision to go for the end zone in the moment. Contrast that with Duron Harmon saying they practice against the fake spike play every week in practice. Which is exactly the time an offense should be deciding what to do on the goal line when you’re running out of time. On Thursday afternoons. On Monday mornings in early August. Not when you’re in the moment. Because the team that has worked on that every week will know what to do and there won’t be any panic over the helmet radio.
*You’d think that since Mike Tomlin started looking ahead to this game about three weeks ago, he would’ve been more ready than that.
*I mean, watch that final play again (I had to go back later because at the time my eyes were rolling in the back of my head and I was choking on my tongue) and you’ll see how completely locked in Eric Rowe was. The whole time the Steelers were lining up, he was anticipating a pass. At the snap he got right up on Eli Rogers, broke when he broke, jumped the route and got a hand on the ball like he’d been working on it since the summer. Because he had.
*The Pats won not because of a bad interpretation of a bad rule. They didn’t catch a break or get lucky. They were prepared in a way Pittsburgh wasn’t. They had situational awareness the Steelers lacked. As Belichick says when he’s walking around in the heat twirling a whistle, there’s no shortcut to being a champion. In the biggest game of the year, the preparation paid off.
*I can talk this way now because of Rowe’s play. But at the start of Pittsburgh’s final drive, WebMD confirmed that I was having an aneurysm. Then in the middle of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch and run, I paused the TV just long enough to hand the Irish Rose a Do Not Resuscitate order. And for the two hours that they spent reviewing the James play, I was just praying for the sweet relief of death. For all I know they did lose the game and it killed me but I haven’t moved on and don’t realize it, like in The Sixth Sense. But I prefer this purgatory to that reality, so I’m good regardless.
*Last week I took withering fire for daring to suggest that missing Rob Gronkowski was a huge factor in them losing at Miami. I accept your apologies. Because he did nothing less than make all the difference in this one. You can spend a lifetime watching football and never see a non-quarterback take over a game the way he did on that go-ahead drive. Brady spread out the Steelers defense and simply nuked them with the superweapon that is Gronk. First he ran a seam route from the slot, inside a cross by James White and Philip Dorsett, that got them to midfield. Next they lined up Mike Hilton on him, but Hilton blitzed, leaving Gronk to the deep man and giving him free release for 26 yards. Then came that freakishly athletic diving catch where he picked the ball of the turf at a full sprint for 17 to set up the Dion Lewis touchdown. Then he high-pointed a fade route for the conversion. That was the damage he did on one drive at the end of the best game of the year. So yes, I stand by my earlier assertion that his absence might have had an impact on them going 0-for-11 on 3rd down in Miami. The prosecution rests.
*The one factor in all those plays was Sean Davis, the guy who dropped the deflected Brady pass on the first play of the drive that would’ve ended it. At 6-1, 202, they put him iso’ed on Gronkowski with the safeties playing 25 yards deep. It wasn’t so much man-to-man as it was playing Porg-to-Wookie coverage. And then on the touchdown, Davis was the guy who got earholed by Dwayne Allen to give Lewis a wide open highway to run down. It’s a bad drive for you when blowing the interception that would’ve won your team the game was the least painful part.
*I feel like we’ll remember this as one of those times when Brady didn’t have a great game, because he actually threw a pick against the Steelers. But that would be the worst kind of grading on the curve. Of marking the kid with the 4.0 extra hard. The last time Pittsburgh intercepted him, Tomlin was an assistant, Barstool was a printed newspaper, you were listening to “Golddigger” and I was listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” (of course I still am). But even that interception, costly as it was in a terrible part of the field to turn the ball over, was a very similar throw to his touchdown to Bradin Cooks. He threw that one from in the middle of a crowded subway car packed with pass rushers, off balance with no room to throw. But he gunned it. A laser-guided sniper round through the defenders. The pick was the result of him throwing off balance under heavy pressure, not because they threw something at him he wasn’t ready for. And for sure not because he turned 40 overnight.
*And still he finished with almost 300 yards, 27 points, 11 in the 4th quarter and yet another comeback on the road against an elite defense. With huge throws like the deep corner route by Cooks on the first drive that took the air out of the stadium and set up a score. And the strikes he threw to Gronk on the final drive. And that might represent the worst game he’s ever played against the Steelers. To put in perspective what he’s done to them over the years, I’ll steal some research from my boy Kerry Byrne of Fancred. This was Brady’s 13th game against Pittsburgh and he threw his 30th touchdown pass. In the history of the Steelers, they’ve given up more than 26 TD passes in a 16-game season exactly once.
*Let me get this straight: Smith-Schuster gets suspended for a cheap shot hit and standing over the guy taunting him while he’s writhing in pain, then reenacts it as part of an end zone celebration? I loved Gronk’s Incredible Hulk flexing. But I guess he should ditch that and just act out his hit on Tre’Davious White instead? Is that how this works now?
*I don’t know how to process Stephon Gilmore’s day other than he went full Gollum/Smeagol on us. He started out playing some of his best coverage of the season. He went step-for-step mirroring Martavis Bryant on a deep ball. He had a textbook pass break up on the next play where the Patriots played “Trio” with a corner, strong safety and robber on one side against a 3-man bunch and Gilmore was left with a “Yoyo” (“You’re on your own”) call on the other. Then as soon as we hit the 2nd quarter, he was in the Pit of Misery, without any Dilly Dilly. (Note: Whoever came up with that campaign deserves a raise.) He gave up 39 on that diving catch where Bryant just went to Warp 9 to pass him, and was back on his heels most of the rest of the game.
*The thing is, you can forgive a corner giving up completions to quality receivers and a top ten quarterback. But when the defense started getting shredded on toss sweeps by Le’Veon Bell to the outside, Gilmore dove at James Conner’s feet on a play that – fairly or unfairly – looked like he was trying to avoid getting hit. Coming one possession after Bryant one-handed a ball on him in the end zone and that’s too many plays where he was just non-competitive.
This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power… and beyond that, something truly special.” – Supreme Leader Snoke, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
*As hard as this is to believe, this defense is hurting without Kyle Van Noy. He was an afterthought last year but this year is essential personnel. Without him, they don’t have that guy who can play spill technique to cover all 53 1/3, play up on the line and stack behind the tackles to mix in the occasional pressure in blitz. They had Elandon Roberts as the lone linebacker most of the game. David Harris was in on some obvious running downs when the whole world knew Bell was getting the ball. And while he had a nice run stuff or two, he got his junk kicked in the dirt by Bell on the very first play and was a liability most of the game. Van Noy is the one guy on the second level they can’t live without. If Van Noy for some reason ever decides the world would be better if he’d never been born, his guardian angel should show him film of the Dolphins and Steelers game to remind him he’s had a wonderful life.
*On that note, I’ve been watching that movie forever and the next time I don’t cry real tears at the end will be the first. But I also find myself at a stage in my life where I realize I would much rather spend a weekend in Pottersville than Bedford Falls. I’d trade the Emporium and Building and Loan for the “Dime a Dance” and Burlesque house any day. And Nick’s bar looks a thousand times more fun than Martini’s.
*Bell had all the carries, but I thought overall the defensive line did a solid job of containing him. Led mostly by Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Ricky Jean-Francois, they closed gaps and kept them closed while Bell was trying to do his Zach Snyder movie slow down/speed up thing. They just lacked the big bodies behind them to finish the plays, so it was left to the tackles, Roberts, Devin McCourty and Pat Chung. And still they kept him under 5-yards a carry.
*If anything, Dion Lewis out-Belled Bell. He had half the carries but a higher YPA. Remember when we were worried he was fragile? He’s running people over. Delivering yards after being hit. He trampled Davis and then dragged him for a 1st. And he’s jump-cutting away from plugged gaps as well as he ever has.
*By the way, the 4th quarter play that went “Alejandro Villanueva held Ricky Jean-Francois” was the most “Harlequin Romance Sentence” play of the year.
*Trey Flowers is the best pass rusher they have. He’s above average against the run for a rush end. But if I never see him defending Bell in the pass game again for the rest of my life, that would be good.
*I’ve watched it a hundred times before I realized that ad where the guy makes a table out of the tree those two old farts loved so much is for pickup trucks. Not power tools or wood finish, reverse mortgages or insurance or anything. But a truck. That is some real Don Draper-level abstract thinking there and why I don’t get 90 percent of advertising now. All I keep seeing is that is an awfully big tree for one little table. So I’m holding out for another one where the son makes two coffins.
*I respect the Steelers’ organization for holding off on introducing Ryan Shazier until just before the Patriots first play from scrimmage. That is exactly the kind of mindgame you have to love in a good rivalry. But I respect even more that the Pats took the ball right down their choked-up throats. Because they are cold-blooded killers who will take your emotional moment and make cocktails out of your tears.
*There’s enough to worry you about his defense right now to not get over confident about any game. But if they don’t lock up the bye week and the 1-seed over the next two weeks then everything we know about everything is wrong.
*I should say something about Antonio Brown getting taken out of the game, but I got nothing. It was a fluke play. Not a kill shot. Just one of those things that happen. You hate to see it. It might have cost Pittsburgh the game. And I hope he recovers in time to beat Jacksonville in the playoffs because I’d rather face the Steelers defense we saw in that last quarter than the Jaguars. And it’s not even close.