An AFC road through Pittsburgh. No, wait. New England: Well, it was most definitely a thriller. Can we do this again next week instead of having to deal with the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets?
After nearly three hours of intensity in Pittsburgh, Sunday's showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots came down to the final play when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted by Patriots safety Duron Harmon in the end zone, sealing a 27-24 win over the Steelers. The win gives the Patriots an 11-3 record, tied with the Steelers for the best mark in the AFC and the advantage for home-field advantage in the conference playoffs.
It seemed Pittsburgh’s game to win, holding a 24-16 lead after intercepting Tom Brady in the third quarter. But Brady led another rousing comeback in the game’s final four minutes, only to watch his defense nearly cough it all up on one play to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who avoided a handful of tackles to bring the ball all the way to the New England 10. It looked as if Roethlisberger found Jesse James for the score in the end zone, but it was ruled an incomplete pass after review. Then came Harmon with the play of the game.
Next week, Buffalo. Do we have to?
The interception that neatly sealed their fate: Brady was held to 298 yards passing and a touchdown on the afternoon to go along with his costly interception, the first one he’s thrown against the Steelers in a mammoth 12 years. Three hundred and one passing attempts later against Pittsburgh, it also marked the third time in the last two weeks the defending Super Bowl MVP has been picked off by the opposition.
Brady was at fault in trying to force the ball into Rob Gronkowski’s hands, a weapon he didn’t have last week in Miami. But this game also marked the second-straight subpar effort for the Patriots QB, lending a bit more to the theory that he could be breaking down toward the end of the season. He IS 40 years old (in case you didn’t know) and doesn’t have last year’s four-game suspension to give him the cushion his body might still need. Are we seeing a similar decline this season? Or should we expect more of the Brady we saw in the final four minutes? If history tells us anything, it’s the latter. Duh.
Game of the year? In an NFL season that has been filled with its fair share of drab contests (anyone still remember last week’s loss in Miami) and also-ran franchises (anything with the Cleveland Browns), everybody expected Pats-Steelers to be special, as it always is. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was previewing fireworks as long as three weeks ago, while Belichick was probably busy preparing for the Bills the first time they faced off against them. But Sunday proved that these are without a shadow of a doubt the best two teams in football, most certainly on track for a sequel of Sunday next month in the AFC Championship game. It’s in the Patriots’ hands now whether that’s home or away.