While many have called New England’s 27-24 win at Pittsburgh a roller-coaster, I’d liken it to one of those drop rides they have at traveling carnivals that lift you way up in the air and release you, making your stomach feel like somebody attached an industrial vacuum cleaner to it. This game went beyond nerve-wracking, straight to concern for everyone’s safety and well-being.
The Patriots scored a field goal with 3:56 remaining to cut the deficit to 24-19. Pittsburgh then embarked on the only three-and-out possession of the game, as safety Duron Harmon, cornerback Eric Rowe, and end Eric Lee forced a punt by combining to bring down receiver JuJu Simon-Schuster short of the first-down mark. As he had for much of the second half, quarterback Tom Brady stayed acquainted with tight end Rob Gronkowski, completing three passes for 69 yards. From the eight-yard line, Dion Lewis scooted past the left end as the entire offensive line blocked to the right, including tight end Dwayne Allen, who pushed safety Sean Davis to somewhere just outside of Sewickley. Lewis slipped past Artie Burns, forcing the corner to resort to grabbing Lewis’ ankle at the two-yard line as the running back took one last stride and pitched himself into the end zone.
With a lofted throw to Gronkowski past an overwhelmed Davis for a two-point conversion, the visitors led 27-24 with 56 seconds left.
Phew. Good one. All set. Right?
Nope. Simon-Schuster answered Gronk’s 69 yards of offense with 69 of his own, a meandering gambol around the Patriots defense where, for some reason, safeties Jordan Richards and Devin McCourty seemed to pull a synchronized freeze dance, their hesitation allowing Simon-Schuster passage along the sideline and into open field all the way down to the 10. On first and goal, Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Jesse James for the game-winning score – or at least what would have been the game-winner in times past before his catch became an incompletion due to rules where each reception gets investigated with more scrutiny than crime scene DNA.
In any case, after James’ arms hit the ground, so did the football. Incomplete. Second down, Roethlisberger twisted out of a potential Lee sack and completed a short pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who got tackled inbounds by corner Malcolm Butler (an underrated part of this amusement-park ending, kind of like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland). With the clock running, Roethlisberger made to spike the ball and stop the clock, only he pumped, hesitated, and fired a pass toward Eli Rogers in the middle of the end zone. Rowe stretched out and tipped the pass, sending it aloft into the hands of Harmon. Game over.
Pittsburgh will always believe this one got taken away from them due to the incompletion call. They have a point about the rule. Still, the Steelers should remember they had an easy chance for a tying field goal: all they had to do was not throw an interception.
Both teams now sit at 11-3, with the Patriots holding the tiebreaker due to this head-to-head win. Next week, New England hosts Buffalo in what could become an AFC East grudge match. Sunday at 1 p.m.
Luck Be A Brady Tonight: Truth be told, Brady had some luck on his side Sunday afternoon, and it did have something to do with whether or not a PIttsburgh player made a catch. This Steeler, though, was Davis, who had a chance to intercept Brady after the QB’s first pass of their final scoring possession fluttered off the fingertips of defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. The safety watched the ball pirouette through his grasp and fall to the turf.
Davis, it appears, did not have the strongest of drives defensively, as he played a major part in Brady’s other bit of luck: the insistence of Steeler coaches to play Davis vs. Gronk man-to-man. While this strategy worked well when the Kansas City Chiefs employed Eric Berry in Week One, no other safety has been comparable to Berry in his ability to cover the tight end (who had only two catches in the season opener). After the incompletion, Brady hired Gronkowski as his personal valet, relying on him to tote all three of his passes down the field. Michael Hurley of CBS Boston gives clear-cut visuals of Gronk’s dominance in his Leftover Patriots Thoughts column.
Though Brady favored Gronk, he passed to everybody, finding nine different receivers Sunday while going 22 of 35 for 298 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. (Actually, if fullback James Develin had been able to hold onto a short throw, that would have made 10 pass-catchers.) Lewis, Allen, Kenny Britt, Rex Burkhead, and Phillip Dorsett all qualified for one-offs, while Brandin Cooks had four, including a 43-yard offering where the receiver got so open he gathered the pass in like a punt. Not the best game for Brady, but he had a strong start (eight for eight to begin the game) and a strong finish (three for three with help from Gronk), which proved to be enough.
Aggravated Rob-bery: Maybe it resulted from missing the Miami mishap, or maybe he’s just feeling it this time of year, but Gronk went off. His nine catches for a career-high 168 yards kept the Patriots going. Like one of those crazy racing semi-trucks, Gronk seemed to take a while to get up to speed, as he began to show off his stuff in the third quarter. A nifty over-the-shoulder catch netted 22 yards, while a slant from out wide on fourth and one on Pittsburgh’s 16 gained 10. Three plays later, Brady stepped up and sidearmed a low, outside fastball to Cooks in the end zone to get within 17-16.
Gronk’s best catch of the night – and you could put together quite a panel of semifinalists in this little pageant – had to be his 17-yard catch on New England’s final drive to set up Lewis’ scoring rush. Brady threw the pass low and away, forcing Gronk to reach down and pluck it up like a kid collecting dandelion heads. Just an impressive bit of athleticism to pull off at his size, going that speed. (That catch comes at the 1:40 mark of the tight end’s impressive highlight reel.)
Also, while blocking on a few of Lewis’ off-tackle plays, Gronk worked like a Macedonian at the front of a phalanx, pushing foes to one side while Develin walled off the other.
Spirit Of Saint Lewis: Especially after a knee injury to Burkhead, Lewis became indispensable Sunday. He rushed 13 times for 67 yards (5.2 avg.) and caught one pass for 13 yards. Lewis’ quickness to the line helps out his linemen, as they can co-op for a second and head downfield to handle linebackers before defensive tackles have time to fend off their blockers. He makes sharp cuts when appropriate and, as with his 12-yard run on third down with 6:28 left in the fourth, he shoots through gaps before linebackers have a chance to react. Lewis runs like a shot-put through a tilted rat’s maze: he alters his direction, but always seems to gain momentum.
If Burkhead has to miss time (and it looks like he will), that means Mike Gillislee should make the game day roster. Gillislee’s most important contribution will consist of taking reps to give Lewis a breather. He’s the best New England’s got at the position.
Brown Down: You’d think that the injury to receiver Antonio Brown would have hindered the Steelers offense, but no. Roethlisberger ended up completing 73 percent of his passes (22 of 30) for 281 yards, two touchdowns, and the final, fateful interception. Smith-Schuster caused some serious trouble for the visitors, collecting six passes for 114 yards. Martavius Bryant also made some Patriots’ heads ache with four receptions for 59 yards, including a one-handed touchdown catch where he used his free hand to fend off Stephon Gilmore. A rough day for New England in general, especially considering Pittsburgh’s third-down success rate of 62 percent (10 of 16). That’s better than Celtic guard Jaylen Brown’s free throw percentage. (This is not an exaggeration.)
Gilmore had a mediocre day, leading the team in tackles with eight (not necessarily what you want your starting cornerback to do), allowing a long sideline pass to Bryant where Bryant raced by him and dove for a 39-yard gain (Gilmore seemed to track the ball about as well as a snowflake in a blizzard). On the other hand, the corner still managed to break up a couple of passes. This coming Sunday, considering Buffalo’s offense is about as dynamic as a beige overcoat, he’ll get a chance to improve.
Sweeping On The Job: Lots of success on sweep plays for Pittsburgh, something Buffalo will surely have noticed. During Pittsburgh’s first possession of the second half, Le’Veon Bell ran two straight toss sweeps for 18 and 15 yards. The Steelers ended up punting after two incompletions and a Bell rush for zero yards. Did the Patriots adjust? It seems that the long gains on sweeps stopped, but Bell still ended up with 117 yards on 24 rushes, a 4.9-yard average.
Again, Buffalo has a special running back of their own in LeSean McCoy. We’ll see how well the Patriots prepare for him.
Britt And Early: NFL veteran Kenny Britt caught his first pass in his first game in a Patriots uniform, a simple comeback route along the right sideline in the second quarter. The completion looked a lot like a 2011-era Chad Ochocinco play. It seemed that Brady called a specific route for Britt, then stared him down until he got open for a seven-yard gain. Not sure what Britt’s time in Foxboro will end up looking like, stats-wise, but it seems that the Pats could use a larger pass-catcher not named Gronk. (Well-done, thoughtful piece on Britt by ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss here.)
Maybe Britt will learn a fair amount of the offense in the next couple of weeks. If he can make more contributions over time, he gives opposing defenses one more receiver to worry about. Speaking of which…
Jake, Rattled In Role? Many Patriots watchers have held out high hopes for rookie tight end Jacob Hollister to get more involved in the passing game. One play in particular that illuminated both his potential and how long it might take to get there happened with 9:18 left in the second quarter. On second down from Pittsburgh’s 14, Hollister zipped past Mike Hilton to break open in the end zone. Brady looked elsewhere at first but went back to Hollister, tossing a pass toward the end line. While Hilton deserves credit for making up ground and breaking up the pass, Hollister allowed the D-back into the play when he faded backwards to receive the football instead of planting and reaching back for it, which could have nabbed him a TD or possibly elicited a penalty on Hilton.
Not saying it would have been easy; just pointing out that the potential pass-catchers not named Gronk need to become more Gronk-like in their pursuit of each pass.
Cooks provided another example. While he did a great job sliding for Brady’s dart the end zone to get the visitors within a point at 17-16, he had issues battling for receptions. Cooks and cornerback Burns fought for a pass along the left sideline, with Burns doing a solid job of getting his hand between Cooks’ mitts to break up the pass. Still, it looked like a play where, with proper timing and footwork, Cooks could have gotten himself in position to grab that ball. (Also, his pleas to the refs for a pass interference penalty every time he fails to come up with the pass have gotten distracting.) On the topic of footwork, poor play by Cooks to step out of bounds before hauling in what would have counted as a 37-yard reception with five minutes left. Not a great possession by the young receiver.
Hop In The Van Noy: Part of the Patriots’ lack of ability to stop offensive drives has coincided with their lack of speedy linebacker Kyle Van Noy. While veteran David Harris and second-year man Elandon Roberts work well shooting gaps in straight-ahead mode, they have the same lateral speed as a couple of iron clawfoot tubs. Roberts, for example, looked primed to stop Bell for a loss near the goal line, but the ultra-aware rusher eased his way outside of the onrushing Roberts’ reach and glided in for a 24-16 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter.
Both guys are solid backups and can put in quality minutes against certain types of teams and rushers; however, Van Noy’s quickness has helped keep opponents contained. Interesting to see if he plays vs. Buffalo and, if so, how much of an impact his presence has on the defense.
Searching For Him – Consistent Lee: Defensive end Lee made three total tackles on the day but lacked consistency. He also had some trouble on containment during the aforementioned sweeps, as he too often neglected to keep his blocker at arm’s length to maintain the edge. Lee missed a couple of big opportunities, letting Roethlisberger slip out of his grasp on two separate occasions. Late in the fourth, the quarterback shirked off Lee’s potential sack and scrambled for five yards. (The home team ended up punting two plays later.) On the Steelers’ final possession, Lee again saw Roethlisberger twist away from a tackle and roll to his left to complete that three-yard pass to Heyward-Bey where Butler made the stop inbounds. Sure, trying to take down Big Ben must feel like moose hunting with a butterfly net, but, had Lee finished the game with two sacks, maybe we’d be talking about his performance differently.
Of course, if he’d wrapped up Roethlisberger on that penultimate play, the Steelers probably would have spiked the ball and kicked a field goal to force overtime. (But you know what? A solid chance exists that they wouldn’t have. As Tom E. Curran pointed out in his scathing column on NBC Sport Boston, mayhem reigned the moment.)
Different opponent this week, different game plan (i.e., McCoy will get more focus than the Bills’ passing game). Let’s see what Lee and his line mates can do.
A-F-Ceased: This game got so crazy that I almost forgot to point out the Patriots won the AFC Eastern division title for the ninth year in a row. You can enjoy their hat-and-t-shirt locker room celebration courtesy of Patriots.com. As a young Pats follower in the 1980s, I saw New England celebrate exactly one division championship, in 1986. They didn’t win another until 1996. This default setting of winning every AFC East title – nine in a row, 15 in 17 years – ranks high in sports dominance.
So why not enjoy it while it’s happening, maybe?
When In Romo: Oh, commentating notes? I promise you I will. A solid performance from Jim Nantz and Tony Romo for CBS, though maybe less enchanting than in previous Patriots broadcasts. Is the luster wearing off from this year’s new pairing? Not sure – it might seem that Romo’s fast start set the bar so high that any mistakes get magnified. Overall, though, a good show.
• Nantz got things going with a notable stat: in both games vs. Pittsburgh last year, New England failed to record a sack. (They had two on Sunday.) In the fourth quarter, he gave more solid numbers: going into that game, the Steelers had outscored opponents in the fourth 70-14.
• Romo remained consistent in his calls for the Steelers to play man-to-man defense instead of zone, and he was often rewarded for that point of view by Pittsburgh’s play.
• After Davis mishandled the potential game-clinching interception, Romo turned prophet: “I can tell you right now, when Tom Brady gets a reprieve … he is a killer.” Romo also called the two-point conversion pass to Gronk better than Steelers’ coaches, apparently, going so far as to circle the one-on-one matchup with Davis before the snap.
Some strong production work by the CBS crew as well, including…
• With two minutes remaining in the first half, an illustrative replay showing Roethlisberger’s hand hitting Trey Flowers’ shoulder pad following through on a pass. Looked painful.
• Speaking of painful, an all-too-clear replay of Stephen Gostkowski’s missed extra point operation, with a close look at the low snap and hurried hold. The CBS crew had that ready to go right away. So, yay?
• Strong, telling graphic at 7:20 of the fourth, where Brady had started the half completing seven of eight passes for 74 yards and a touchdown but had gone one of six for 17 yards and an interception since.
• I would not have realized without CBS’ help that Pittsburgh’s possession with 3:56 left ended as the first (and only) three-and-out of the afternoon.
And now, the not so good. More than usual with this crew, so let’s get to it:
• Nantz narrated a “Missing Pieces” bit CBS had ready to go about how the Steelers always seem to be missing key personnel during these tilts. No mention of Gronk’s absence from the playoffs last year, though.
• At the end of the third quarter, New England downed a punt on Pittsburgh’s three-yard-line. Both Nantz and Romo gave all the credit to Matthew Slater, but Jonathan Jones was there, too, and may have touched the football first. Jones deserved a mention, at least.
• Just a general peeve: Nantz falls short of giving yardage for each play, especially compared to the likes of Al Michaels or Ian Eagle. It’s just nice to have in mind whether it’s third and three or third and five without having to wait for the graphic.
One more big issue with the pair in a minute, but first, some replays I would have liked to see and/or have clarified:
• At the 13-minute mark of the first, Bell ran off-tackle for seven yards. He seemed to have some space but either slipped or got tripped up. Worth a second look.
• A replay that lacked conclusiveness happened on Pittsburgh’s first TD, to Rogers. The official said that no illegal block downfield occurred, so the flag was picked up. On the replays, we saw Rogers’ catch but saw no shots of the offensive line to discern the call for ourselves. (For the record, it was indeed an illegal block downfield, as Football By Football’s Matt Chatham explained in detail.)
• At 9:08 of the second quarter, Gronk raised his arms in complaint to the refs after an incomplete pass. Why the complaint? Well, watching the replay shown during halftime, we can see illegal contact on Gronk seven yards downfield. Could have used a game-time replay and commentary on that.
• Though we got a replay on Cooks’ 37-yard reception that didn’t count because the receiver ran out of bounds, we got a view from only a little less far away than an overhead blimp. If we want to see whether or not a player stepped out, looking at it from a wide angle across the field won’t help.
• Last replay revisit: On the Patriots’ punt return with 2:06 left, Nantz called them for a clip on cornerback Brian Allen that the officials didn’t seem to notice. We didn’t get a replay, but after a closer look, it seemed Allen slipped as Patrick Chung pushed his shoulder. Nantz reacted to the crowd’s oohing, and that’s fine, but considering that Allen got up and offered no protest after the play, maybe nothing happened.
I’d say “wait for the replay” on that one, but at this point we’ve got a better chance of meeting Godot.
Okay, back to Nantz and Romo and my biggest issue with them Sunday. How the hell did they botch the James incompletion call so badly? I mean, these guys seemed more oblivious to the play than how my daughter gets to my voice during a “My Little Pony” binge. The touchdown became a foregone conclusion to these two. Nantz actually said, “No doubt it’s going to hold up” (some doubt, there, Jim), while Romo watched yet another replay and added, “No one touches him, that’s going to stand.”
When the pair finally started, like, watching the ball hit the ground, their voices took on the same tone as the guards from the “You stay here” bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nantz, at long last, wondered aloud if they (the officials) were looking at the football. “Oh, that’s what it is, Jim,” Romo said. “They don’t think he caught it.”
I mean, regardless of what we think about the rule, don’t we get it yet? When we watch scoring replays, shouldn’t the state of the ball when the receiver hits the ground mean everything at this point? As I said before, a solid overall broadcast, but regrettable lapses by Romo and Nantz at the end, there.
Max Overload: I got my hair cut on Monday morning, important background to the fact that, while in the barber’s chair, I was forced to listen to ESPN broadcast Max Kellerman’s painstakingly ignorant breakdown of what he kept calling a catch. Kellerman pointed out that James had his knee down, and that, because one knee equals two feet, he had established possession. Kellerman also pointed out that the football broke the plane of the goal line and “even if one atom of that football breaks the plane,” it’s a touchdown.
What Kellerman failed to point out, over and over, is that a receiver catching a pass while falling to the ground must maintain possession of the football as he hits the ground. In other words, where James landed on the field didn’t’ matter: in order for it to be ruled a TD catch, it first had to be ruled a catch. No reception, no score.
I get the distinct feeling that, if the situation were reversed and a late touchdown by a Patriots tight end had gotten overturned, the rest of the nation would have a much better understanding of the catch rule.
It’s A Lot Easier Seeing Green: I don’t usually write about the Celtics in this space, but hotchee mama, what a fun team. Kyrie Irving – someone I never realized I would look forward to watching play – handles the basketball like it’s a trick yo-yo. And Jayson Tatum? I haven’t seen a teenager perform this well in the clutch since Kerri Strug. Last year’s team was fun to watch, but the 2017-2018 Celtics feel like when I listened to a walkman for the first time: familiar songs, but with clearer, fuller sounds.
Christ, that’s a crappy metaphor. Just – the Boston Celtics are a great team to follow, okay?
Let’s take a commercial break. Lots of new ones, so we’ll fire through these:
Under Your No’s: The Amazon Web Services commercial “Let Builders Build” seems uneven from the start. A hipster talks to the camera (his voice is obviously looped in later), gesturing at you with his coffee cup that we know is really empty to emphasize how the word “no” gets in the way. But then we see shots of signs like “No Swimming” and “No Diving,” which seem like the types of “No’s” we should heed.
“You can’t tell me what to do, you stupid sign!” (Dives. Hits head. Washes up on shore.)
Onward Cristiano Soldiers: Just watched the Optimum ad featuring a shirtless Cristiano Ronaldo, and I couldn’t help but wonder – does Ronaldo look like how NBC Sports Boston’s Mike Giardi sees himself in the mirror? Because I hope so. That would be a marvelous thing. When I look in the mirror, I see a vague reminder of my former self, except someone fashioned this older version out of dry skin, dirty sweatshirts, and raw bacon. ¡Ronaldo!
Fight Or Flight: Absolutely love the new Southwest Air ad with the couple racing around a baby store because they have to fly somewhere and adopt their baby. Over six years ago, my wife and I adopted our daughter. She now refers to me as her “second-favorite babysitter,” ranked just behind Katie, a middle-schooler who lives down the street.
I have moved up in the rankings.
Feeling L’eau: Like being stoned. Why do perfume (pardon me: parfum) commercials insist on getting weird? Chanel’s No. 5 L’eau ad (which touts itself as “L’EAU – The Film“) features words on the screen that form lines like, “I am night and day, question and answer,” and “You know me. And you don’t.”
So, what does it smell like? Water and Fire? Darkness and Light? Pretentiousness and Your Dad’s Old Neckties?
I can’t see one of these ads without thinking back to an old-school SNL parody for “Compulsion.” It’s a classic.
Grand Standing: Grand Theft Auto Online just released a trailer for “The Doomsday Heist,” because video games get their own trailers now. What struck me about this was the amount of talking. When did exposition become a big draw for gamers? I just can’t imagine being a child and listening to Pitfall Harry give a detailed backstory. Less talking, more action-packed shoot-’em-ups, you guys.
Though it gives me an idea for a 2018 release: the video game for Frost/Nixon.
All Is Calm: Speaking of movies, I’ve never seen Netflix advertise so much on the big networks as they have for the movie Bright. And, yes, I will definitely check it out.
Clocking Dead: Okay, it’s off the air for a couple of months, so let me tell you what really bothers me about “The Walking Dead.” No one should get killed by a single zombie. Think about it. A slow, scuffling, two-legged thing approaches you. As my wife pointed out, they’re hip to the whole zombie thing, so it’s not as if one of these characters would become concerned for the health of a stranger and approach him saying things like, “Hey, pal, are you okay?” right before taking a chomp on the neck. Squaring up against a zombie looks about as challenging as fighting a 90-year old, half-blind drunk.
To counteract this, the producers have made it so that, every time there’s a close shot of a character, there’s the danger that a zombie will leap in from off-frame and attack. But this shouldn’t happen, because there is no way these stumblers should be able to sneak up on anyone. Their breathing sounds like if Darth Vader took off his ventilator, ran up two flights of stairs, and drank a pint of buttermilk. Think about, in real life, what you’d have to do to approach someone without him or her knowing, then consider: zombies don’t tiptoe, and they don’t hold their breath (though they can survive indefinitely underwater, which seems problematic – if they don’t need oxygen, why do they breathe?).
The fun of science fiction comes with the mix of the two: a fictional construct guided by some scientific facts. Like in the classic monster movie Them!, where ants have become giant due to exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing. But the ants act like real ants (“shoot the antennae!”). There’s consistency there. Anyone else remember episode two in season one of “The Walking Dead” when zombies could run and climb fences? But then I guess that got inconvenient as a plot point, maybe?
Yeah, it’s good the show’s taking a break. I’ll probably forget all my issues with it by February.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: As stated here a couple of weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills were a barbershop quartet (true story – check out the school board from The Music Man). The American version of the buffalo (found in Asia and Africa) is called a bison. That word comes from the Greek for “ox-like animal.”
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: We did Buffalo a couple of weeks ago (named after Buffalo Creek), so let’s do Orchard Park. Here’s a direct quote from the town’s website: “The name Potter’s Corners gradually was replaced by Orchard Park, informally, about 1882 when it was noted that the community resembled a park of orchards.”
Sometimes the simple answers turn out to be the best.
Just a personal note, here. December can bring a lot of joy into our lives, with upbeat music, sparkly lights, and comfort food. As happy thoughts seem to dominate, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to ask you to keep an eye out for depression among your friends and family. Speaking as someone who has gone through it, I request that you consider the fact that sometimes, some people get depressed. Though occasionally events can set it into motion, no one requires a reason to be depressed. In fact, one of the worst sentences you can utter to someone battling depression is, “You have no reason to feel this way,” because they do. We do: the reason is, we have a part of our brain that doesn’t process the world in the same way most people’s brains do. Life can seem perfect from the outside, but that doesn’t matter.
It’s weird, but here’s the thing: you don’t have to understand it, you just need to accept it. You might have the best intentions, but phrases like, “You have it great; you should cheer up,” or “You need to get out there and enjoy yourself,” not only fail to help, they can hurt. We should cheer up, but it’s not a choice, it’s a physical malady. Imagine taking off someone else’s glasses before they get behind the wheel of a car and saying, “You know what? You don’t need glasses. You just need to focus; like, really think about what you want to see.” That’s not going to work, right? So, especially during the holidays when we’re all supposed to feel happy, look out for those who might feel left behind instead. They might not say so, but they’ll appreciate your gesture.
Thank you for reading my dinky little column. Here’s to a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a strong finish to the season.
In high school, Chris Warner was in a Mel Brooks musical called “All American,” playing several roles, each one even more forgettable than the show itself. You can email him at email@example.com or tweet @cwarn89.