The New England Patriots are back where they belong: Above the Pittsburgh Steelers and on top of the entire AFC. How they got there was anything but ordinary. It was, however, typical -- typical of the Patriots to pull out a win that only they could possibly see through.

  • Overcome an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit? Check.
  • Barely generate a timely defensive stop? Check.
  • Score a late touchdown to take the lead? Check.
  • Pick off a goal-line slant in the final seconds to seal the win? Check.
  • Break the Steelers' hearts? Always.

In the game of the season on Sunday, the Patriots went into Pittsburgh and handed the Steelers a crushing, devastating, and heartbreaking 27-24 defeat. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Le'Veon Bell racked up 165 total yards. The Steelers actually managed to intercept Tom Brady for the first time in 12 years. They held the ball for over 35 minutes. 

But they lost.

They lost because they couldn't engineer a put-away drive after they took an eight-point lead late in the third quarter. They lost because they gave up 11 points in the final four minutes. They lost because the officials overturned what appeared to be a certain game-winning touchdown via Roethlisberger and Jesse James. They lost because Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake-spike play instead of killing the clock and setting up Chris Boswell for a chip-shot, game-tying field goal, which would've sent the game to overtime. 

As a result, the Patriots are now the top seed in the AFC. They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers. So if they win their final two games of the season, they'll enter the playoffs with home-field advantage. 

The Empire is back. The Empire remains strong. The Empire is more than happy to welcome the Steelers to Foxboro in January with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. The rest of the AFC playoff field, including the Steelers of course, should not be happy. 

For a while, it really did look like the Steelers would end the Patriots' reign. But it all fell apart in the final minutes. After the Patriots kicked a field goal to trim the Steelers' lead to five points with four minutes to go, the Steelers needed to piece together a put-away drive. Instead, they went three-and-out, coming up a yard short of the first-down marker and punting the ball back to Brady. As we all know by now, giving the ball to Brady when you're clinging onto a one-score lead is football suicide. 

Five plays later -- after Rob Gronkowski went all Gronk all over the Steelers' secondary -- Dion Lewis plunged into the end zone to give the Patriots a one-point lead. A fade to Gronk to secure the two-point conversion handed the Patriots a three-point lead with under a minute remaining. 

But the Steelers struck back. JuJu Smith-Schuster turned a short pass into a 69-yard gain.

On the next play, Roethlisberger found James for what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown. But the officials reviewed the play and found that James did not complete the process of the catch. As he went to the ground and stretched the ball over the goal line, the ball contacted the grass and shifted in his hands. 

Incomplete. You can hate the rule, but you can't blame the officials for correctly enforcing the rule.

But the Steelers were still well off. They needed only a field goal to tie the game and they still had a couple chances to breach the end zone. On the next play, Roethlisberger threw short of the goal line and Darrius Heyward-Bey was tackled in bounds. The clock ticked. The Steelers were out of timeouts. It looked like Big Ben would spike the ball to stop the clock, but he pulled off the fake spike instead. And then he threw the pick to Duron Harmon that ended the game and handed the Patriots control over the AFC.

The path to the Super Bowl will likely go through New England. Read on for seven takeaways.

1. Gronk carries the Patriots

The Patriots didn't just win because of the always controversial and confusing catch rule. They didn't just win because of that late interception. They won because they have the most unstoppable playmaker in football: Rob Gronkowski. 

Gronk, who missed last week's loss to the Dolphins due to a suspension, powered the Patriots to victory. The Steelers rightly changed their typical ineffective defensive strategy to play more man-coverage and less zone, and it worked for the most part. The one player they couldn't contain was Gronk, who ran straight through tight coverage and blasted the Steelers over and over again.

He finished with 168 yards on nine catches. On the Patriots' game-winning drive, he caught three passes for 69 yards -- and that's not even including his two-point conversion.

Gronk forever. 

2. Tom Brady bolsters his MVP case

Barring something strange happening in the final two weeks, Brady is your 2017 NFL MVP at the age of 40. On Sunday, he strengthened his MVP case by completing 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards, one touchdown, one pick, and an 87.6 passer rating.

Brady faced more pressure than he's used to and his interception certainly deflated the Patriots considering it led to a Steelers' touchdown. His stat line wasn't overly impressive.

But he also made the kind of throws that only Tom freakin' Brady can make. 

After Carson Wentz lost his season to a torn ACL, Russell Wilson and Antonio Brown were seen as Brady's only challengers. Well, Wilson suffered a second straight dismal outing and Brown suffered a serious injury in the early going on Sunday.

The MVP belongs to Brady barring a catastrophic final two weeks.

3. Antonio Brown's injury

Once again, we were robbed of an opportunity to watch the Steelers at full strength.

In the first half, Brown suffered a lower leg injury that knocked him out of the game. He ended up heading back to the locker room. The Steelers said he suffered a calf injury and called him questionable to return. But at halftime, Mike Tomlin revealed that Brown likely wasn't going to return. And then the team announced that he was heading to the hospital.

The long-term implications of Brown's injury matters more than what happened on Sunday, but let's just note how incredibly unlucky the Steelers have been when it comes to their health against the Patriots. For once, it'd be great if we could see these two teams play each other at full strength.

Brown entered the game as the player with the best chance to threaten Brady's MVP candidacy. But to unseat Brady, he needed to lead the Steelers to a win over the Patriots. Instead, he never really got the chance. He finished with two catches for 24 yards before suffering that injury. That will likely end his chance to win MVP and become the first receiver to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark.

Good news: According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Brown should be back in time for the playoffs.

Hopefully, if the Steelers and Patriots meet again next month, Brown will be fully healthy to give us the matchup we've wanted for far too long.

4. Ben and Bell were awesome

The Steelers didn't have all of their Killer B's, but they had enough offense. To put it simply, Big Ben and Le'Veon Bell played brilliant football.

Roethlisberger was nearly flawless until his final play of the game. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, and a 110.6 passer rating. 

And Bell was the workhorse the Steelers needed, especially with Brown out. On 29 touches, he piled up 165 yards and a touchdown. For so much of the game, he was unstoppable. 

The Steelers should be able to survive with Brown because Big Ben and Bell are more than capable of carrying the Steelers down the stretch before the playoffs begin.

5. Smith-Schuster and Bryant step up

Let's give credit to the Steelers' other two receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, for filling in for Brown admirably. Smith-Schuster racked up 114 yards on six catches, including that incredible play that nearly set up the Steelers for a walk-off win.

And the oft-maligned Bryant totaled 59 yards and hauled in an awesome one-handed touchdown catch.

6. Ryan Shazier returns to Heinz Field

Two weeks ago, Ryan Shazier suffered a terrifying back injury that resulted in a stay at the hospital and surgery to stabilize his spine. On Sunday, he made a surprise return to Heinz Field. Moments before the game, the big screen at the stadium showed Shazier sitting in a suite.

The crowd erupted.

Shazier started rehabilitation this week. Even though he's on injured reserve, he's remaining involved with the team.

"I go see him and he wants to talk about the game plan," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "He wants to talk about how the guys are doing. He wants to talk specifically about what's transpiring in practice settings and so forth. That's Ryan."

7. What's next?

To wrap up the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots just need to beat the Bills and Jets. Both are home games. So, the Patriots should emerge from the regular season with home-field advantage.

The Steelers, meanwhile, get the Texans and Browns to finish out the year. They can still acquire home-field advantage if the Patriots slip up, but their priority needs to be securing a first-round bye. The Jaguars are only a game behind them for the No. 2 seed and they already beat the Steelers. A tie would go to the Jaguars.

You can see the entire playoff picture here.

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