Let’s begin by getting some of the applicable numbers out of the way, and keep in mind that all of these are verifiable, for those who find they defy belief. Rob Gronkowski caught two passes for 21 yards. Two of Tom Brady’s completions covered 97 yards, and the other 23 covered 182, which works out to an average of 7.9 yards. The Patriots were 0-for-3 in the red zone, 0-for-1 in goal-to-go situations, and 3-for-11 on possession downs (27.3 percent).
The next item of business is an explanation of the scenario that Coach Mike Tomlin chose for his team in the final two-plus minutes of a game the Steelers were leading at the time by a precarious 14-10.
With 2:41 remaining in the fourth quarter the Steelers faced a third-and-6 from the New England 31-yard line. The Patriots were out of timeouts, and so the only automatic stoppage of the clock would come at the two-minute warning. One strategy would have been to run the ball on third down to cut into the 6 yards necessary for a first down while also getting the clock down to the two-minute warning. Then, go for it on fourth down, and if successful, it’s time to take a knee three times and go home with a victory. If unsuccessful, the Patriots take over on downs inside their own 30-yard line with no timeouts and less than two minutes to score a touchdown to win the game.
What Tomlin instead decided had the Steelers go for the end zone on third down – Ben Roethlisberger’s jump-ball attempt to JuJu Smith-Schuster inside the 5-yard line was incomplete, which stopped the clock at 2:34. On fourth down, Tomlin opted to trust Chris Boswell to attempt a 48-yard field goal that if missed, like his 32-yard attempt had earlier in the game, would’ve given the ball to Brady at the Patriots 38-yard line with something more than two minutes remaining to score the touchdown that would send the Steelers to their fourth defeat in a row and likely end any realistic hopes they had to make the playoffs.
It’s also worth noting that Boswell had been so unreliable this season that the Steelers were moved to hold an open tryout for his job in the days leading up to this game, but the combination of no better available options and the fresh memories of the magic Boswell authored last season combined to keep him employed. But Boswell came through on this 48-yard attempt to up the Steelers’ lead to 17-10, and the Patriots would get the football one final time after the touchback on the kickoff at their own 25-yard line with 2:30 remaining.
Tomlin has shown faith in his defense in some similar situations this season only to have his heart ripped out by a failure to make a play to end the game, but this time he seemed to be making the same decision only with more evidence that it would succeed.
Usually preferring to defer if winning the coin toss, Tomlin this time elected to take the football, seemingly a sign he didn’t want his team to find itself in an early 7-0 hole. Instead, the Steelers found themselves with a 7-0 lead when Ben Roethlisberger found Vance McDonald for a 5-yard touchdown just slightly more than six minutes into the game. But when it was 7-7 less than two minutes of game time later following a 63-yard Brady pass to a wide-open Chris Hogan it seemed as though this was going to be a re-run of a movie Steelers fans had watched too many times over the past decade.
But that’s when the Steelers defense stiffened, and it was pretty much a constant state of being for the balance of the game. New England – with Brady at the helm and with Gronkowski deployed in various spots within the formation – punted on each of their next five offensive possessions, and none of those possessions penetrated the Steelers’ 45-yard line. They sacked Brady only once, but mounted sufficient pressure to register seven hits on the quarterback; they broke up four passes, intercepted another, and they were close enough to receivers and physical enough to entice close to a handful of drops.
After that first quarter big-play touchdown, all the Patriots managed on the scoreboard was a red zone field goal, with their final two possessions ending with a Joe Haden interception and a turnover on downs, respectively.
Gronkowski did nothing, and it’s likely the Steelers concentrated on achieving that at the expense of their run defense, but Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead combining for 84 yards over the course of a whole football game wasn’t going to get them beat. And for all those observers who love to attribute the outcome of this particular matchup to one coach having his way with the other, well, have at it.
Maybe start with New England committing 10 more penalties (14-4), or perhaps it’s more illustrative to examine Bill Belichick’s curious clock management/timeout usage at the end of a first half in which the Patriots twice elected to absorb 10-second runoffs rather than utilize timeouts they then took into the locker room during a six-play possession that netted no points.
Whatever, because it’s still going to be portrayed as one coach being a genius disciplinarian and the other being lucky his cockamamie decisions didn’t blow up in his face, but in the end the Steelers earned a victory they absolutely had to have over a long-time nemesis they were given little chance to defeat.
It was a victory that saved their season. How they achieved it was even more significant than that.