If the Pittsburgh Steelers were ever going to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a big game, this was it. This was supposed to be it, until it wasn’t.
Only the cruelest of football gods could have constructed the latest outcome of the Steelers’ continuing series of misery versus the defending champs.
This was the game of the year. In fact, this was the regular season game of the past decade. Not since Patriots-Colts in 2007 (dubbed Super Bowl XLI 1/2) had a game received so much pre-game hype, and for good reason.
The Patriots win means Brady, who likely will win his third NFL MVP in February. He was good but not great in this trip to Heinz Field. But as his legendary career advertises, Brady was unflappable on the game-winning drive, in which he found Rob Gronkowski four times for 69 yards and a two point conversion to give the Patriots a 27-24 lead with 56 seconds remaining.
Ben Roethlisberger had led four game-winning drives of his own in the Steelers’ past five games, and he’s been known for a few clutch drives himself (Super Bowl XLIII anyone?). But after Jesse James’ touchdown catch was correctly overturned by the league’s infuriating catch rules, Big Ben’s last pass turned into the sourest of endings for a team that had recently had the look and feel of the team of destiny.
Losing Antonio Brown in the second quarter (and for the rest of the regular season) certainly hurt, but not as much as the Steelers only three-and-out of the game coming late in the fourth quarter when they needed a first down the most.
Down 24-19 with just over two minutes remaining, Brady (after a near interception from Sean Davis, who Gronkowski victimized afterword) constructed yet another surgical clinic on the heart of the Steelers defense, as well as the roaring fans in Heinz Field, who left the stadium in shock after the game.
Brady again came through in the most crucial situation of his season. After all, this was the game of the year, meaning this was the biggest moment of the entire NFL season in general.
What’s even more incredible is Brady’s late game heroics in his biggest moments since 2014.
Consider this: If you combine Brady’s passing numbers for the finals drives of Super Bowl XLIX, Super Bowl LI, and this past game, the biggest regular season game of the 2010s, Brady’s statistics and accomplishments are as followed:
16-for-18, 184 yards, three touchdown drives, two crucial two-point conversions, two Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and what may be the AFC’s No. 1 seed and his third NFL MVP award after Sunday’s results.
That is incomprehensible. It may be overkill to still be in awe of Brady at this point, but he continuously raises the bar of excellence. If the Patriots are to win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, Brady would have two Super Bowl MVP awards and an NFL MVP trophy all in the span of 12 months.
As it is, Brady is in the midst of the best four-year stretch for a quarterback in NFL history, and he’s doing this at ages 37-to-40.
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio said it best during his guest appearance on the new program Golic & Wingo yesterday morning.
“It was such an incredible scene in the Patriots locker room after the game,” Paolantonio said. “Tom Brady, feet up in his locker FaceTiming with his children back home about fantasy football and The Last Jedi. It’s sort of like okay, I just cut the heart out (on the road) of my biggest rival and I’m just like another 40-year-old guy who went to work. Brady has become like Jordan to me. He wants to win at all costs, and at the end it’s just business as usual.”
Touching back on Brady’s high level of play at this age. He’s not only at his best right now, he is playing better than any NFL player ever has played at any age. With Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown out of the race, he is the NFL MVP (although Todd Gurley is a close second). Wrap your head around that while the conversation switches to the best tight end in NFL history.
Like Brady, Gronk continues to prove doubters wrong by returning to his best form after every major injury he’s sustained. Like Brady always is, including on Sunday, Gronkowski was uncharacteristically hyped to an aggressive extent during the game. Gronk has always been known for his outgoing personality, but most of his antics are all in good fun. He was out for blood on Sunday, but in a performance-based way as opposed to his borderline head-hunting stunt that caused him to miss last week’s loss in Miami.
Perhaps it was that situation that fueled Gronkowski, who had the best game of his career considering the moment. Brady, who clapped at the booing fans of Heinz Field as he ran onto the field, and screamed in elation at as he left after the win, may be throwing to his pass-catching clone in terms of fiery attitude and clutch play as of the last few seasons.
Yesterday, Fox Sports analyst Shannon Sharpe called Gronkowski the most dominant non-offensive quarterback in the NFL. To think that some writers were calling Travis Kelce the best tight end in football earlier in the year? Blasphemy.
The Steelers defense had no answer for Gronk in the second half, who reeled in 135 of his 168 yards in the second half. Their best defensive player, linebacker Ryan Shazier, was in luxury box and was shown on the big screen to a rousing applause. But on the field, the Steelers woes versus Gronkowski (135 of his 168 receiving yards in the second half) remained. Unlike past meetings where the Steelers refused to move away from their comfortable zone coverage scheme, the Steelers found some success in man coverage. But the decision to leave Sean Davis alone on Gronk during the final drive produced the results you’d expect. A Gronk victory by the form of mismatch.
Yet the Steelers still had their chances to win, even after the overturned catch, no-catch situation with tight end Jesse James. Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl wins, is clutch in his own right. But like Russell Wilson, a great pressure player himself, Roethlisberger made perhaps the biggest gaffe of his career against the mentally-tough, well-coached Patriots, who are a reflection of their head coach, Bill Belichick.
Roethlisberger used a fake spike to take the lead versus the Cowboys in the final seconds of a shootout last season. But the Patriots weren’t fooled. Big Ben’s pass was of course tipped by Eric Rowe, and ricocheted into the welcoming arms of Duron Harmon, the Patriots underrated closer known for his game-ending interceptions.
Antonio Brown (partially torn calf muscle) is believed to have a chance to return for the postseason. The Patriots won eight straight games and led the league in defensive scoring during that span with linebacker Kyle Van Noy as their defensive leader. He’s missed the last two games, but the Patriots will get him back for the playoffs.
So things may seem a little different when the Steelers and Patriots square off in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in January (which they most certainly will). In fact, it seems as if the Steelers have closed the gap on their prolonged inferiority to their big brother franchise of the 2000s. But given their past results and the improbable outcome in Pittsburgh on Sunday, the result for the Steelers may forever be the same.