Patriots, NFL, Playoffs
Eric Rowe and the Patriots defense came up big when it mattered most. Getty Images

Was it a catch?

 

 

 

Well, that depends on who you talk to.

 

 

 

The guy at Dunkins in Charlestown will tell you why it was a catch and then stumble through the rule explanation.

 

 

(Still want that $0.87 coffee?...)

 

Outside of New England, though, they're singing a different tune. A whiny tune, but one that doesn't end with "dood" anyways.

 

It's unfortunate that such a competitive and entertaining game is overshadowed by another "catch rule", but really, it doesn't have to be this way.

 

So much else went on during Patriots-Steelers that it would be a shame to look past it. And there's so much ahead that it would be a shame to ignore it all week, too.

 

The 11-3 Patriots are AFC East Division champs (again) and sit atop the AFC (again) where they control their own destiny for a first-round bye and home-field advantage (again).

 

If not for a few key plays though, things could look a lot different today.

 

1. Rob Gronkowski - Patriots MVP (OK, aside from TB12)

More proof of Rob Gronkowski's greatness. A week prior in Miami, the Gronk-less offense looked helpless. A shaky Brady threw for just 233 yards, there was no run game, and the offense went 0-for-11 on third down. But with Gronk back after serving his one-game suspension, it was obvious how he positively impacts the game. Gronk caught nine of 10 catchable targets for 168 yards, consistently moving the chains for the Patriots. He averaged 4.94 yards per route run, the highest of any tight end in Week 15, according to Pro Football Focus. And you can’t forget his crucial 2-point conversion catch to put the Patriots up three points. If he doesn't catch that, the Steelers aren't throwing to the end zone at the end of the game. They would have kicked an easy field goal for the win. This dude is healthy and the Pats success depends on him staying that way.

 

 

2. Bend and don't break Pats D

The Pats D bent almost to the point of a massive break in the final minute of the game. A crossing route to Juju Smith-Schuster, with cornerback Eric Rowe tailing him, turned into a 69-yard catch-and-run to put the Steelers on the 10-yard line. After the "non-catch" occurred on first down, Darius Heyward-Bey was tackled in-bounds by Malcolm Butler. This was huge because it forced the Steelers to rush their third-down play with the clock winding down. That's when Ben Roethlisberger's pass to the end zone was tipped by Rowe himself right into the hands of Duron Harmon for the game-clinching interception. Credit Rowe for recovering quickly after allowing that big gain on the Steelers’ first play, and getting his hand in to break up the pass. The drive before this one, New England held Pittsburgh to its first three-and-out of the game, allowing Brady enough time to stage his 53rd career game-winning drive.

 

 

3. What lies ahead?

As previously mentioned, the Patriots control their own destiny. With two home games to end the regular season against the Bills and Jets, there is a very real chance they won't have to step on a plane until the last week of January to Minnesota. Certainly, they won't be thinking about that right now. Instead it's an important division game against a Bills team fighting for a Wild Card spot - and looking for revenge against the Patriots, who beat them 23-3 a couple games ago. But that revenge goes even deeper, to Gronkowski who was suspended one game for a dirty hit he put on the Bills' Tre'Davious White. White and his teammates were very upset and there's plenty of reason to believe they still are. With Gronk's health so important, this could be tough for Patriots fans to sit through.