In what may have been the game of the season, the New England Patriots survived with a three point victory in Heinz Field.
It was a thrilling game, especially in the final few minutes. The New England Patriots (11-3) survived against the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3). New England rode Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski right down the field on the final possession to score what was ultimately the game winning touchdown. Pittsburgh immediately responded with a drive right back down the field. That drive was ultimately derailed due to a controversial call by the referees in which they took away what would have been a go ahead touchdown by Steelers tight end Jesse James. Duron Harmon ultimately secured an interception in the end zone to seal the game for the Patriots.
- Playoff Bound – With the win, the Patriots won their ninth straight AFC East crown. This ensures that they will still be playing in the postseason. More importantly though, if both Pittsburgh and New England finish with the same record, the Patriots now own the tiebreaker for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. It also keeps New England one game ahead of the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars who are currently 10-4.
- Rob Gronkowski – Gronkowski continued his utter domination of the Steelers defense. In the victory, Gronkowski had nine catches for 168 yards. When it mattered most, Brady threw the ball in Gronkowski’s direction en route to what proved to be the game winning touchdown. While Gronkowski didn’t score that touchdown, his presence allowed New England to march right down the field.
- Missing Bodies – While they may not be big names around the league, the Patriots certainly felt the absences of both Alan Branch and Kyle Van Noy in the victory. Without Branch, Pittsburgh was able to run the ball very well. They ran for 143 yards on 31 carries in the game. Without Branch there was a noticeable void in the middle of the New England defense. Without Van Noy, New England was short handed on the edge of the defense. Trey Flowers did return in this game but when he is contained, New England isn’t consistently able to generate pressure on the quarterback.
- Offensive Line – With Marcus Cannon now on Injured Reserve, the Patriots have to find a way to fill his whole on the offensive line. LaAdrian Waddle has been solid when called upon this season, but he did not start this game. Without Cannon and Waddle, New England may have to give extra help to the right side of the offensive line. Joe Thuney has also regressed in the past few weeks. If his poor play continues the Patriots may need to consider other options.
- Receivers – Despite returning last week, Chris Hogan was inactive on Sunday. Without him, the receiving corp of New England is awfully slight in stature. That could be why Kenny Britt was added during the week. In clutch situations, having the size of Hogan Britt on the outside could help open up throwing lanes for Brady. He made due tonight but that may not always be the case.
- Some Luck – Potential MVP Antonio Brown left the game in the first half with what was described as a “calf” injury. With him out of the game, Ben Roethlisberger had to try to force a pass into the end zone to other targets at the end of the game. A win is a win for the Patriots, but the injury to Brown likely impacted the outcome in the waining seconds.
While New England is now in the driver’s seat for home field advantage, they aren’t at the finish line yet. To borrow a familiar Patriots phrase, they will still have to “Do Their Job” in the coming weeks against the Bills and Jets. If the Patriots win out, the road to Minneapolis will once again go through Foxboro.