By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- You'd think that after 17 years of running the NFL, things would get a bit stale with the New England Patriots. But you'd be wrong.
Just when you think you've seen it all -- including an end-zone interception to win a Super Bowl, or a 25-point comeback in a Super Bowl, or a 24-year-old quarterback engineering a Super Bowl-winning drive, or a goal-line stand in Indianapolis, or a playoff win in the snow with a major assist to a little-known rule, or a slew of last-minute drives to win games -- the Patriots go and find a new way to thrill you ... and then crush you ... and then resuscitate you, and then do it all over again.
Think about it this way:
When the Steelers took over at their own 19-yard line with a five-point lead and less than four minutes to play, you couldn't have confidently believed that the Patriots would get the ball back. The Steelers had gone 10-for-14 on third downs to that point. Yet, the Patriots -- with sure tackling from Duron Harmon, Eric Rowe, and Eric Lee -- made a stop in the middle of the field on a third-and-4.
And think about it this way:
When Tom Brady got the ball at his own 23-yard line, trailing by five points, with 2:06 to play and two timeouts in his back pocket ... you would've been surprised if he didn't lead a scoring drive. Your only concern was whether he'd score too fast. And, thanks to Rob Gronkowski's Unstoppability Factor, he did exactly that.
And then recall this:
When JuJu Smith-Schuster broke free for a 69-yard catch-and-run in the final minute you knew that the Steelers had just won the game. A crushing defeat was inevitable. The defense, bad all day, failed once more. Sure enough, nobody covered Jesse James on the next play. Touchdown. (You were still thinking, though, that Brady would have 28 whole second to lead another scoring drive, weren't you?)
Yet the NFL overturned an obvious drop (spare me the controversy; you have to catch the ball in order to catch the ball). Malcolm Butler made a championship level play to tackle a streaking Darrius Heyward-Bey before the receiver could get out of bounds. Ben Roethlisberger panicked. The Patriots did not. Rowe played defense, Roethlisberger made an awful decision, and lo and behold, the Patriots had found a brand new way to win a football game.
To be sure, there have been dozens of thrilling Patriots victories over the past 17 years. Too many to name -- though the bananas comeback against the Browns in 2013 never gets properly remembered as truly wild afternoon in Foxboro. But this one had so much at stake. If the Patriots had taken a loss, then they would have been on track to play in the wild-card round for the first time since 2009. The road to the Super Bowl would have gotten 33 percent longer, and the Patriots would have lost having the comfort of home along the way.
Now, they just need to beat the Bills (not a gimme, but shouldn't be a problem) and the Jets -- both home games -- to secure a 13-3 season and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. It's just crazy that, after all these years, after all the wins and all the losses, you can still managed to feel shocked at the end of a frenzied finish to a football game.
This run by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has been historic, and it has been a thrill to watch. There will never be anything else like it.
Now -- leftover thoughts from the Patriots' memorable 27-24 win over the Steelers.
--Just to drive home the silliness of the Patriots' sustained level of success, here is some information. They've won the division for the ninth straight year; that's the longest streak of all time. They've tied the NFL record with nine straight playoff appearances. Forget the fact that they're going to win 12 or 13 games; they've won at least 11 games for the eighth straight year, also an NFL record.
Brady has now won 15 division titles, more than Peyton Manning's 12, Joe Montana's nine, and Brett Favre's eight.
Obviously at this point, where the Patriots are just about making the Super Bowl every other season for a decade and a half, these types of accolades don't resonate. But I feel it's always important to take a step back and really try to conceptualize how absurd it all is. Once Belichick and Brady are gone (assuming they do retire one day) and the Patriots more closely resemble every other team in the NFL, we'll all look back on this era with amazement.
--The ending was wild, obviously. But there was a lot more to this game.
Like, for example, when the Steelers -- who spent their whole offseason crafting a plan to prevent Tom Brady from ripping out their souls -- left an entire quadrant of the football field open for Brady to connect with Brandin Cooks on the Patriots' first possession:
I mean ... that wasn't excellent.
Also not excellent? Keeping Sean Davis in man coverage with Rob Gronkowski with the game on the line.
That went for 26 yards. Change it up? Well ...
That went for another 26 yards. Change it up? Well ...
That went for 17 yards. Yikes! Surely the Steelers wouldn't leave Davis in man coverage for the critical two-point conversion, though. Right? Oh sweet God.
Could have been better there.
Come on, Keith Butler! That's Bob Gronkowski. Maybe give him an extra look or two next time. Goodness gracious.
--Speaking of Rob Gronkowski, you have to appreciate the fact that Rex Burkhead is not afraid to get personal and close with his teammate:
You can't teach that level of affection.
--I was expecting a ton of overbearing officiating in this one, based on the track record of Tony Corrente's crew this year, but overall I found the game to be quite enjoyable from a flow standpoint. Calls in the secondary were only made when absolutely necessary, nothing overly egregious was allowed to take place, and ultimately the football players determined the outcome of the football game. It was a nice concept.
That being said, nothing grinds my gears quite like an official seeing a penalty being committed, throwing a penalty flag, and then picking it up as if nothing happened. "There is no foul for [whatever penalty]," the referee will announce. Then why throw the flag?!
This happened on Pittsburgh's first touchdown, a fancy play-action pass to Eli Rogers. Part of the reason it worked so well is that Steelers right guard David DeCastro was three yards up the field, blocking David Harris as the pass was delivered to Eli Rogers:
That is a textbook penalty for an ineligible man downfield. That's why an official threw a flag for ineligible man downfield. And yet, after a huddle, Corrente announced, "There is no foul for an ineligible downfield, the rule stands, touchdown."
The rule stands? First day with your new mouth? (Boom roasted.)
Whatever. You called a penalty and then took it away because .. well .. because. That's why. Bugs me.
It was funny, then, to see DeCastro complaining that the Steelers lost because of a "third-party" decision.
--Of all the things Gronkowski did, the funniest was when he signaled the first down while lying flat on his back:
--OK, OK, OK. You got me. Making an over-the-shoulder catch while running at full speed in the middle of three defenders with an opponent's hand literally in his face was pretty impressive, too:
--OK, FINE! Fine. I will admit that it was also not bad when, on a fourth-and-1, Gronkowski needed all of four steps in order to get himself open for a 10-yard gain.
That was good too. Twist my arm why don't you? Fine, Rob Gronkowski is pretty good.
--Brady was pretty good too, you know. That winning drive was vintage Brady. The deep ball early to Cooks was nice, and the touchdown pass to Cooks was a freaking bullet. But he did make some odd decisions.
This pass to a double-covered Cooks, for example:
That was his first incompletion of the game after starting 8-for-8. It was weird.
Brady was also late to recognize that Jacob Hollister (admittedly not Brady's first read) had a step on his man, thus allowing Mike Hilton to make up the ground and break up the pass:
And the pick. I mean. That was an Andy Dalton, back-breaking, unnecessary pick.
He's the best to ever do it, obviously, but it's crazy that sometimes, for fleeting moments, he looks like just like everybody else. Almost like he's ... human? Or that playing quarterback in the NFL, on the road ... is difficult?
I don't know what it was, but I don't like it.
--I really don't understand how or why there's any controversy on Jesse James' overturned touchdown. The man did not catch the football. In the sport of football, if you jump in the air to catch a pass, and you then allow the ball to hit the ground and you lose control of the football when you come down, it is not a catch. This is not a case of Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. It's a case of a man not catching a pass. It happens all the time. You have to catch the football. He did not.
Leave the goal line out of it, leave being touched or untouched out of it. He never caught the football. It's really not very complicated.
--All of that being said, "Survive The Ground" sounds like a really bad WWE pay-per-view special.
--So, as you know, the NFL relaxed its rules on touchdown celebrations. We want to let the players have fun! That's cool. They don't really do a whole lot for me, but I bet if I were a 12-year-old kid, I'd be loving it.
Anyway, one thing that remained explicitly banned was violence. Can't be violent. No guns. No throat slashes. And in the case of Brandin Cooks (and Josh Norman), no ... shooting an arrow. Even though bow-and-arrow violence isn't exactly an epidemic in this country, or at least it hasn't been in maybe 500 years, the NFL put its foot down when it came to shooting imaginary arrows into the sky. Can't do it! Tooooooo violent!
OK. Fine. But uhh ... if JuJu Smith-Schuster committed an act of violence so egregious that the NFL deemed it worth a one-game suspension ... was it really smart for JuJu Smith-Schuster to recreate his act of violence in the midst of a touchdown celebration on a nationally televised football game? I say no.
The officials didn't penalize him for it, but it would be surprising if the league didn't send a message to the 21-year-old with a hefty fine. One thing Roger Goodell does not like is being made to look like a fool. He generally doesn't need help in that area.
--Wins are fun and all, don't get me wrong. But the Patriots have problems on defense. Matt Patricia had no answers. Stephon Gilmore wasn't great. The linebacking depth chart remains an issue. Jordan Richards is probably getting too many snaps. The shine may be lost on Eric Lee after his big game vs. Buffalo. And so on.
The issues were most glaring on a third-and-1 late in the third quarter, when the Patriots employed the dreaded zero humans defense in a big spot.
You've simply got to have more humans than that.
The Steelers turned that into a touchdown, of course, making it a four-point error. Not ideal, and indicative of the Patriots' defensive woes that can't be ignored. Against teams that can score, a Patriots home playoff game in the divisional round might look a whole lot like what we saw on Sunday. A trip to the AFC Championship Game really shouldn't be assumed at this point.
(The top 10 scoring teams in the NFL include the Jaguars, Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers, in case you were wondering.)
--Football also has a problem. Thomas Davis' blind-side head shot on Davante Adams? Brutal. A league where players feel emboldened to even attempt such hits? Terrible.
But that play was penalized, and Davis will be fined and possibly suspended. What's arguably more disturbing is the fact that what Sean Davis did to Dion Lewis -- launching a helmet into the running back's head -- was 100 percent within the rules of the game.
The opportunity was there for a tackle, or for holding up the running back and allowing a teammate to strip the ball. But more often than not, defensive players like to go for the knockout hit. And the league does nothing to discourage it from happening.
Lewis popped up by flexing his muscles right in Mike Mitchell's face, and you appreciate the man's toughness.
But you should also be allowed to be concerned that maybe hits like that don't need to happen. The NFL has a long, long way to go when it comes to protecting the brains of ball carriers, and the league seems mostly uninterested in even doing anything about it.
--We now enter the Bill Belichick quotes portion of the program. There's something to be said about a coach who shows absolutely no emotion after a win like that -- a win that for many coaches would be a career highlight. Belichick just kind of did his usual thing, keeping his energy level at about a 0.8 out of 10 and giving credit to everyone on the roster, from Brady and Gronkowski to the kick coverage team. Here are a few of his highlights.
When did you know they were going to review Jesse James' touchdown catch?
"Uh, when they came over and told us."
Were you surprised they overturned it?
"It looked like the ball moved. I don't know. You should talk to the crew about that."
What were you thinking when you decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1?
"It was fourth-and-1. I thought we could get a yard."
Do you ever feel lucky?
"Just keep competing. Just compete for 60 minutes. That's what you do. You just keep competing."
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