In the end, whether it was called correctly or not, maybe it should be a catch … and maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe Pittsburgh played the better game and maybe New England was, yet, again, lucky. Maybe things would have been decidedly different if it were New England’s Rob Gronkowski – and not Antonio Brown – who left the game with injury before halftime.
But whatever the particulars, we are still left with this:
There is a reason the Patriots are the Patriots and the Steelers are the Steelers, particularly when the two meet.
The Pittsburgh Steelers threw everything they had at the Patriots in an instant classic at Heinz Field late yesterday, but the result was still the same when the noise all stopped: New England 27, Pittsburgh 24. And while much of the football world will debate the merits of the NFL’s elaborate, complex and confusing (to some) catch rule and whether justice was done, there were some indisputable truths that are impossible to ignore.
1. At the end of the game, Tom Brady was closer to perfect than Ben Roethlisberger was.
Oh, sure, Brady nearly threw a game-ending interception on New England’s final drive of the game. But on his next four passes, with home field at stake in the AFC Championship Game, Brady went 3-for-3 for 69 yards and a successful two-point conversion, the last of which was critical. Without that two-pointer, there is little confusion as to whether the Steelers should have clocked the ball or tried for a touchdown on their final offensive play of the day. They would have drained the clock, kicked a field goal, celebrated another last-second victory in a season full of them.
Instead, Roethlisberger went back to pass on a play where he had one receiver _ yes, one – running among several Patriots defenders. He made an ill-advised throw into the teeth of a defense in what was, perhaps, his only bad decision of the day.
But then, against the Patriots, that’s what often happens.
2. The Steelers didn’t give enough attention to Rob Gronkowski.
How this could happen is anybody’s guess, but after a day on which the Steelers finally altered their defensive approach and mixed coverages against the Patriots while playing far more man-to-man coverage, the Steelers left Gronkowski in what felt like single coverage for much of the game’s final drive. Smartly, Brady went to him – over and over and over again. It’s bad enough that no Patriot other than Gronkowski had a reception on the final drive. But no other Patriot had a target.
Counting the two-point conversion, Gronkowski had 10 receptions on the day, four on the final possession. He was targeted five times. Nearly half of his output for the game came in a span of roughly 70 seconds.
Suffice it to say that if Bill Belichick were coaching the Steelers, he never, ever would have let that happen.
3. When it came time to close, the Patriots grabbed the chance … and the Steelers dropped it.
OK, let’s go back to those final drives.
With 2:06 to play on first down from the New England 23-yard line, Brady threw a pass intended for Gronkowski that was deflected by Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward. Pittsburgh safety Sean Smith had to abruptly change direction but had a chance to intercept the ball. He dropped it. Predictably, Brady exploited the second chance to the full extent, taking the Patriots down the field for a game-winning touchdown.
Not much later, Roethlisberger tried to jam in a throw to Eli Rogers at the goal line. Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe had excellent coverage on the play and deflected the pass. Naturally, safety Duron Harmon did what David did not. He caught it.
Lucky? Maybe. But go back and watch the final play at the moment just before Roethlisberger releases the pass. Most of the Steelers are just standing around. The Patriots are swarmed around Rogers.
Co-host of afternoon drive from 2-6 p.m. on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Tony Massarotti is a lifelong Bostonian who has been covering sports in Boston for the last two decades. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti