Three-straight losses pushed them to the edge of the playoff cliff, but the Steelers regained their footing with a 17-10 win over the Patriots on Sunday, snapping a five-game losing streak against their AFC rivals.
After watching the Ravens take care of business in the early window of games, the Steelers emerged with a hard-fought win that kept them on top of the AFC North, denied the Patriots a chance to win the AFC East, and shook up the playoff order in the AFC. The Patriots are now trailing the Texans in the standings and if the season ended today, they'd be participating in wild-card weekend.
Neither offense played particularly well in a defensive-minded, sloppy game. Both future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, made game-changing mistakes. Both defenses came up with timely stops, with the Steelers getting the last one as Brady failed to complete what would've been yet another signature game-tying drive in the dying seconds.
The first two drives of the game resulted in touchdowns, but the scoreline was only 14-7 in favor of the Steelers at halftime as the Patriots struggled to sustain drives (1 for 5 on third downs) and the Steelers watched Big Ben throw away a key possession in the second quarter. The Steelers' ball-control style of play was mostly working, though. At halftime, the Steelers held a 19:06 to 10:54 advantage in the time-of-possession battle.
The Steelers couldn't help but give the Patriots extra chances, though. Chris Boswell missed a short field goal that would've granted them a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter. Holding a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, Big Ben threw his second interception to Duron Harmon that set up the Patriots with great field position, which they should've turned into a go-ahead touchdown, but Brady outdid Roethlisberger with one of the worst interceptions of his career in the red zone. The Steelers led 14-10 with under eight minutes to play. They proceeded to burn over five minutes of game clock and extended their lead to seven points when Boswell redeemed himself with a 48-yard field goal.
Brady had two-and-a-half minutes to go 75 yards and force overtime. When he hit Julian Edelman to take the Patriots to the 31-yard line, it certainly looked like overtime was inevitable.
Three underneath completions to James White got the Patriots to the 11-yard line with 37-seconds remaining. But they never made it any farther. On fourth-and-15 from the 21-yard line with 20 seconds left, Brady's pass for Edelman in the end zone was broken up.
The Steelers had finally vanquished Brady.
As a result, the Steelers are now 8-5-1, half a game ahead of the Ravens in the division, and half a game behind the Patriots for the third seed in the conference. Though a tough trip to New Orleans awaits, they're in good shape to journey into January, an outcome that seemed very much in doubt after last week's loss to the Raiders.
As for the 9-5 Patriots, they'll still likely win the AFC East considering the now 7-7 Dolphins also lost on Sunday, but they dropped behind the 10-4 Texans for the all-important second slot in the AFC. New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Houston, so there's still a very real chance they'll end up with a first-round playoff bye, but they'll need to win out and hope the Texans lose to either the Eagles or Jaguars.
While no one will be foolish enough to write them off entirely, they no longer look like the presumed AFC Super Bowl representative, and their recent run of form is cause for concern. We're not used to the Patriots looking this vulnerable in mid-December. We're not used to seeing the Patriots leave Gillette Stadium in January. But they are now staring at that possibility.
Big Ben, Brady exchange mistakes
Neither Big Big nor Brady played particularly well. Both submitted inconsistent, sloppy outings and hurt their teams with costly mistakes after starting the game with touchdowns.
On the opening series of the game, Big Ben got the scoring started with a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vance McDonald that involved a masterful pump-fake that bought time for McDonald to finish his long-developing route.
Brady responded with a 63-yard touchdown to Chris Hogan that was more about the absence of coverage than Brady or Hogan.
On Tom Brady & Chris Hogan's 63-yard TD, Hogan had 19.2 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the time of catch, the most wide open a receiver has been on any pass of the last two seasons.#NEvsPIT#GoPatspic.twitter.com/hPphxHegfq— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 16, 2018
Big Ben threw his second and final touchdown of the game -- this time to Antonio Brown -- early in the second quarter to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead.
And that's about where most of the good ended for the two quarterbacks. We'll start with Roethlisberger, who threw two awful interceptions to Harmon.
His first ended a Steelers possession that began at the 1-yard line and prior to the interception, threatened to put the Patriots in a two-score hole. Roethlisberger just overshot JuJu Smith-Schuster in a dangerous area of the field.
His second came in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers held a four-point lead. It was the exact throw he couldn't make given the game context.
Just when it looked like the Patriots would turn that takeaway into points, Brady threw one of the worst interceptions of his career. Last week, during the loss in Miami, Brady took a horrible sack at the end of the first half that cost the Patriots three points. This week, he threw up this floater in the face of pressure.
Tom Brady just threw his first red zone interception since Dec. 16, 2016 (180 attempts). pic.twitter.com/yAGOLWCgJw— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) December 16, 2018
Brady got a chance to atone for his mistake, but couldn't come up with the final 21 yards he needed to get the Patriots into overtime. It's rare to see Brady make a terrible mistake in the red zone and then fail to complete a game-tying drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. But this hasn't been a normal season for Brady, who hasn't played up to his normal standards.
He finished 25 of 36 for 279 yards, one touchdown, one pick, and a 89.9 passer rating. Big Ben's stat line was even uglier. He went 22 of 34 for 235 yards, two touchdowns, two picks, and a 79.9 passer rating.
Samuels leads Steelers
Luckily for the Steelers, they had Jaylen Samuels, who powered the offense with 142 yards on 19 carries (7.5 yards per carry) and 30 yards through the air. Who needs Le'Veon Bell or James Conner when you have this?
Even when Conner returns from injury, Samuels should continue to garner touches.
Where was Gronk?
Rob Gronkowski traditionally destroys the Steelers. Entering Sunday, he'd racked up 39 catches, 664 yards, and eight touchdowns in six career games against Pittsburgh. But he was invisible on Sunday as he continues to endure a down season that suggests he's on the downslope of his career.
He caught two passes for 21 yards on five targets.
File this one under concerning and unusual for a Patriots team that is seldom penalized.
14 penalties for the Pats. Most since 2014.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 17, 2018
They sprung up at the worst possible moments too. A key (and controversial) pass-interference penalty preceded a Steelers touchdown in the first half, a holding penalty near the goal line occurred a couple plays before Brady's red-zone interception, and false start and holding penalties doomed their final series.
What a catch by Washington
It's been a difficult rookie season for James Washington, who and entered Sunday with 10 catches, 88 yards, and one touchdown. But he came up with a huge catch in the third quarter that reminded everyone why the Steelers took him in the second round.
He finished with a team-high 65 receiving yards on three catches in what was very easily the best game of his young career.
Special teams matter
Midway through the second quarter, the Patriots' punt team executed a brilliant coverage play to pin the Steelers at the 1-yard line. Fault Ryan Switzer for being unable to field the punt before it bounced, but credit the Patriots' special teams for an incredible volleyball-like play, which withstood Mike Tomlin's challenge.
THIS is how you cover a punt 😱 pic.twitter.com/VLmxyu5wfU— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 16, 2018
SPECIAL TEAMS SUPERHEROES pic.twitter.com/yQHJ6JfmXN— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 16, 2018
At the end of the first half, the Patriots won the special teams war again. Credit Bill Belichick this time around.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 on their own side of the 50 with a running clock, the Patriots lined up like they were going for it. As a result, the Steelers didn't call a timeout to preserve time for their offense. A few seconds later, Brady and the offense ran off the field, and the punting team replaced them. In confusion, the Steelers never stopped the clock with a timeout. As a result, the Steelers' offense didn't take the field until after the punt was downed with 21 seconds showing on the game clock. They took a knee to send the game to halftime.
And that's how the Patriots avoided giving the Steelers the ball with a chance to score again. Give Belichick credit. And blame Tomlin for letting all that time tick away.
Boswell finds redemption
Sticking with the special teams theme, a nightmare season for Boswell continued. In the third quarter, Boswell pushed a 32-yard field goal wide to keep the Patriots within striking distance. He's now missed 12 kicks (seven field goals and five extra points) this season.
Boswell missed two field goals during the Steelers' three-point loss to the Raiders a week ago, which led to the team holding kicker workouts during the week. They ended up sticking with Boswell, who signed a four-year extension in August that made him one of the highest-paid kickers in football.
Boswell rebounded by drilling a 48-yarder with two-and-a-half minutes remaining to push the Steelers' lead to seven points, which should be enough for him to hang onto his job another week.
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