Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Patriots steal one from Steelers
1. The Steelers gave their fans a feel-good moment by showing Ryan Shazier on the Jumbotron before the New England Patriots’ first possession.
Seeing a smiling Shazier waving a Terrible Towel seemed to inspire not only the Heinz Field crowd but the Steelers defense, even if it was only temporary.
Tom Brady led the Patriots on a six-play, 77-yard scoring drive. The key play, however, was Brady drawing defensive end Cameron Heyward offsides with a hard count on a third-and-1 at the Patriots 45. On the next play, Brady hit Brandin Cooks along the left sideline for a 43-yard pass to the 7 that set up Rex Burkhead’s 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
2. The NFL MVP talk that surrounded the Steelers this week centered on Antonio Brown, whose standout season made him a centerpiece of the conversation.
There was a belief that Sunday’s Steelers-Patriots game could go a long way toward determining the winner of the award, given it involved two of the leading candidates in Brown and Brady.
No receiver has ever earned the award, which Brady has won twice. but Brown made it clear that as much as he would appreciate the recognition, he’d rather have a Super Bowl ring.
Then AB injured his left calf in a collision with cornerback Erie Rowe with 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter, after an uncharacteristic dropped pass in the end zone.
My first thought was it could make or break Brown’s MVP candidacy — especially if his absence proved his value — but that was before he exited the injury tent and headed for the locker room, and long before he was taken to the hospital for evaluation.
Now, the Steelers have to hope Brown’s injury isn’t so serious that it would hurt their chances of winning a seventh Super Bowl.
3. New England coach Bill Belichick has a reputation for taking away an opponent’s top two offensive threats, so it was obvious the Patriots would focus on stopping Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
That meant the Steelers would need someone else to play a pivotal role, and Trib columnist Tim Benz predicted it would be Martavis Bryant .
And Bryant delivered in a big way.
First, he stretched out for a diving, 39-yard catch on the first play of the second quarter to the Patriots’ 17. It was the kind of catches Bryant makes regularly in practice, less so in games.
It preceded Brown’s injury, which was followed by Chris Boswell’s 51-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead at 12:15 of the second quarter, but Bryant followed with a 10-yard catch on a third-and-7 and a one-handed grab for a 4-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 17-10 lead with 25 seconds left in the half.
By halftime, Bryant had three catches for 53 yards. That’s more yards than he’d had in any game except for Minnesota, when Bryant finished with three catches for 91 yards and a TD.
4. Vince Williams has taken the loss of Shazier as hard as any Steeler, and his interception of Brady was the turning point.
It also was Williams’ first career interception, one that couldn’t have come at a better time for the Steelers.
Williams bobbled the ball before hauling it in and returning the pick 13 yards to the Patriots’ 22. A key third-and-1 pass to tight end Xavier Grimble set up Le’Veon Bell’s 3-yard touchdown for a 24-16 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter.
5. Whatever the Steelers’ scheme was to stop Rob Gronkowski — and it seemed to involve strong safety Sean Davis — it did little to stop the Patriots from finding the All-Pro tight end from Woodland Hills.
Brady and Gronk had previously connected 30 times for 496 yards and eight touchdowns against the Steelers, and they connected nine times for 168 yards, including a 10-yard catch on a critical fourth-and-1 catch to keep alive a drive in which the Patriots scored to cut it to 17-16 with 8:50 left in the third.
Brady repeatedly turned to Gronk on the Patriots’ final scoring drive, connecting over the middle for back-to-back 26-yarders and then a 17-yarder to the Steelers’ 8.
That set up Dion Lewis’ 8-yard touchdown run, which was followed by a two-point conversion pass to — who else? — Gronkowski to give the Patriots a 27-24 lead with 52 seconds left.
Before you could blink, JuJu Smith-Schuster answered with a 69-yard catch down the left sideline, and it looked like the Steelers would steal a victory. Ben Roethlisberger hit Jesse James for what appeared to be a 10-yard touchdown, but a review showed James lost possession. Two plays later, with the clock running and no timeouts, Roethlisberger faked a spike and fired a pass intended for Eli Rogers that was intercepted by safety Duron Harmon.
Suddenly, it was over.
The Steelers didn’t just lose again to the Patriots, they had their eight-game winning streak snapped in the worst imaginable way. It was a costly loss, one that saw the top seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs stolen in the final seconds.
If there’s going to be a Round 2, it’s going to be in Foxborough.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.