The end of the game Sunday reminded many – including Patriots coach Bill Belichick – of the end of Super Bowl XLIX where Malcolm Butler had to pick off Russell Wilson to preserve the win. The amazing shoestring catch by Rob Gronkowski on the go-ahead drive reminded others of Super Bowl LI in Houston and a similar play by Julian Edelman.
In all, there were so many stirring moments from Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Steelers that will reverberate for days and weeks to come. They might last well into January should the Patriots and Steelers have a rematch in the AFC playoffs.
Here are some of the highlights from a Monday filled with reaction to the Patriots amazing win over the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field:
I asked Bill Belichick about Duron Harmon’s comment that execution in practice led to game reality on his game-saving interception. What concepts does the staff try and implement in practice so that you are able to execute a play like you did at the end of the game with so much chaos going on?
“Well, it’s just the awareness of those two plays – the spike and the fake spike,” Belichick said. “As a spike, we really can’t do anything about that play but we can play the fake spike if they throw it. That’s what we try to do, is defend what really can hurt us which is the fake spike play. If they spike it then that’s really, I mean, not a play that we can affect too much.”
Jordan Richards appeared to leak out to his left before making an adjustment back to the inside, cutting down the passing lane for Ben Roethlisberger and allowing Eric Rowe to deflect the pass on the Harmon interception.
“I’m not sure exactly if there was a communication on a call that he was on,” Belichick said of Richards. “I’m not sure exactly what all was going on with every individual player out there between getting the call, getting lined up and so forth. I’d probably leave that one to him. But I’d say just the overall awareness of our team of being ready for that situation and usually you don’t see the ball thrown inside like that. A lot of times on a fake spike you see it thrown up to the corner of the end zone, so that’s usually where the ball goes on that play. But they got us on a touchdown earlier in the game on the inside play there off of play-action so, again, defensively you just have to react to whatever they do. Our players did a good job of that. Obviously, Eric was very alert on the play and was able to reach in there and disrupt the ball.”
Other takeaways from Belichick’s Monday conference call with reporters:
Q: How important was Malcolm Butler’s tackle of Darrius Heyward-Bey that kept him inbounds and allowed the clock to continue to run before the final interception?
BB: “Yeah, it was key. It was key. We called a blitz on the play and had a chance to tackle Roethlisberger in the backfield. He got away from us and I don’t think he felt like he had a lot of time to extend the play, and Heyward-Bey was kind of open coming across but Malcolm did a real good job of closing on him and made a strong tackle there, and it was on the sideline so they had to bring it all the way back to spot the ball and so forth. That kind of ate up a little bit more time and kind of caused, yeah, some additional, I’d say, movement, and activity and communication on the fake spike play.”
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Q: Thinking along the lines that Rex Burkhead could possibly miss some time due to injury, what have you noticed from Mike Gillislee in his preparation and attitude despite being inactive for the past six games?
BB: “Well, Mike’s very consistent. He works hard all of the time. We’ll see how it goes with Rex. I’m not sure exactly what the extent of his injury is. We’ll see how that goes. I think at this point all of our players have been told and need to know that they need to be ready to go every week. We need everybody and it could change from one week to the next or somebody’s role could change within the game very quickly. We’re at that time of year. Hopefully, whatever the circumstances are, however it unfolds, we’ll be ready to do that and make those adjustments. Our entire team works hard, worked really hard this week. I think everybody was prepared and ready to go for whatever they were asked to do, as was Pittsburgh. Again, they’re a good team and we made some plays and they made some plays. We just battled back and forth. It’ll be that way going forward. Everybody needs to be ready every week.”
Q: On Pittsburgh’s third-down play prior to their final punt of the game, Duron Harmon seemed to step up and help make the tackle short of the first down. Was that a part of his responsibility or was that a read he made on his own?
BB: “Yeah, that was a big play. They motioned into a bunch set and we were in a kind of combination type of a coverage so that we wouldn’t get picked with the tight splits, and so we backed off and created a little bit of space which allowed them to get through. I think it was [JuJu] Smith-Schuster that caught that ball, right? Yeah, so he kind of popped open when he came underneath. He was the outside receiver. He came underneath the two inside receivers and, again, we were backed off and there was some space there. He caught the ball and Duron came up and made a good hit but Smith-Schuster is a strong runner and he was struggling to get away from Duron and from Rowe. Actually, it looked like Eric Lee came back off the pass rush and really wrapped him up and got him on the ground. I mean, it was a big hit by Harmon to keep him from getting the first down, but I don’t think the play was really over until Lee really got him. Again, just good hustle, good effort and good awareness certainly on Duron’s part to make sure that he could make the tackle, make the play short of the first down, which he did. That was a big play for us.”
Q: How rare is it for someone with Rob Gronkowski’s size to be able to make catches reaching down and seemingly plucking the ball off the ground like he did on that final touchdown drive?
BB: “Rob does a real good job of that, Bob [Socci]. It’s really impressive and I’d say it’s one of the most impressive things that he does is not going to the ground on a lot of those catches, that he can make those catches around his ankles and still continue to run and gain extra yards. On that one I think he did go down and Sean Davis was there to make the tackle after he caught it anyway, but just in general on those catches Rob has a lot of those plays where for a tall, linear type of player like he is to go down and be able to get those balls is difficult, but I think it’s even more impressive when he goes down and catches them below his knees and continues to pull the ball in and continues to run and keeps his balance. He doesn’t just dive on the ground and catch it and end the play right there. His catch radius is outstanding. His hands and his catch radius are two of the things that make him so difficult to cover that even when a defender is on him and he can be draped all over him, there’s some place where the ball can be located that Rob can get it and the defender cant. Tom does a good job of putting it there and Rob does a good job of catching it.”
Q: How impressed were you with the blocking by Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen on Dion Lewis’ touchdown play?
BB: “Yeah, it was really pretty good blocking all the way across the front. Pittsburgh stunted inside on that, and so Rob and Dwayne kind of were able to wash it down. They also tried to run through with the linebackers and Shaq [Mason] and Joe Thuney picked them off, and so then the play went outside. It was just Dion left against [Artie] Burns, the corner, and Dion was able to run through him for the touchdown. Everything kind of got washed inside there and it was just the corner and Dion one-on-one, and Dion got the 8 yards or whatever it was for the score. It was good blocking at the point of attack, but it was a real good job by Joe and Shaq on the run-through linebackers.”
Q: How did you feel about the kicking game yesterday and the impact the conditions had on it?
BB: “Right, well, the field goal was a huge kick for us, obviously, and put us in position after we were able to make a stop on defense to come back on the final offensive drive to go ahead. Really, I thought the conditions were good. I thought the field was in great shape. It was a plush field, good, thick grass and kind of like Cleveland, where we played there last year. But, it was good. There was some light rain early in the game, but that let up. I didn’t think it was bad at all. The wind was not much of a factor. So, I thought Ryan [Allen] got off a couple good punts. I thought they kicked the ball pretty well. You know, the big thing, I think, for us is just in the kicking game, on kickoffs, those extra yards that we gained on the kickoff, we had good field position on our kicks. And, even that last kickoff, getting them on the 20 instead of touchbacking it on the 25 might have made a difference on those final couple of plays after the long catch-and-run by [JuJu] Smith [Schuster]. But, I thought our kickoff coverage team did a good job and our kickoff return team, even though we didn’t break any long plays, we were able to punch the ball out there a little bit further than taking touchbacks. They were forcing us to return the ball, so we were getting it out there to decent field position. It was a big play by [Matthew] Slater downing – Ryan had a real good punt on that – of downing the ball on the 3, 4-yard line, whatever it was. I think we got some good field position plays on it in the game, and every yard’s important in a game like that. Just it shows up sooner or later. I thought our kicking game played – you know, we were competitive on special teams. Certainly, there were plays that could have been better, I’m not saying that. But overall, I thought we did a decent job.”
Q: After a unique game like that, do you ever think back on similar games you have been a part of?
BB: “Well, it was a similar ending to the Seattle game. But, again, the difference in that game was they had to score a touchdown. They were down by four, and so this one a field goal changed it, which again, highlights the importance of the two-point play. Had we not hit that two-point play, then they would have just kneeled on the ball and kicked a field goal at the end. Again, there were so many big plays in that game as you go back through the fourth quarter of the game and really every play is a huge play. The difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter, maybe call it from the second half of the fourth quarter on – the last seven, eight minutes – a change in any one of those plays could have affected the outcome of the game. So, that just to me showed how competitive the game was and how critical every single little thing is – each play, each player, each call, each situation. But, it was a great football game. As I said, we were fortunate to make one play more than they did to win it, but it was a very highly competitive game against a good football team, and I think the message for us is just every play’s important and every situation’s important. You’ve just got to be prepared for all of them. You never know which ones are going to come up, but being able to execute under pressure when they do takes the other 59 minutes and 30 seconds or whatever – not saying it’s meaningless – but it takes all those plays out of the game and now it just comes down to one play or one situation or one short period of time, a few seconds, and that determines the outcome of the game. Situational football is so critical at this time of year, and fortunately we were able to make the plays we needed to make yesterday.”
Meanwhile, with their thrilling come-from-behind victory Sunday, the Patriots captured their ninth straight AFC East division title, securing a playoff berth for the ninth straight season and tying an NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances. The exciting finish resonated with both national and local audiences, as CBS’ coverage of the game captured the highest rating of the 2017 NFL season across any network and earned their highest rating since the 2015 season.
Sunday’s broadcast captured a national household rating of 17.0, up eight percent from last year’s Week 15 national broadcast, making it CBS’ highest rated game since Week 10 of the 2015 season featuring Kansas City at Denver and New England at N.Y. Giants. In the local market, the game earned a 39.7 household rating, making it the highest-rated game of the 2017 campaign for the Patriots and the second-highest over the past two years, while once again taking the top spot in the weekly television ratings.
The Patriots will return home to Gillette Stadium next Sunday, December 24, for a Christmas Eve showdown with the Buffalo Bills. The 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff will be televised locally on WBZ, again with Jim Nantz calling the play-by-play and Tony Romo handling color commentary, as they were on the call in Pittsburgh Sunday.