The Week 15 clash between New England and Pittsburgh had Game of the Year written all over it, and boy, did it ever deliver. To channel Stefon from Saturday Night Live, this game had everything: a pair of this generation’s iconic quarterbacks trading haymakers, the best players at their positions looking unstoppable, an early (and potentially season-altering) injury to a superstar, and an ending decided by the NFL’s most controversial rule.
While tight end Jesse James’s game-winning touchdown that wasn’t is sure to be a talking point all week, the biggest takeaway from the Patriots’ 27–24 victory is that these franchises seem destined to face each other again in the AFC championship game. And Sunday’s instant classic provided plenty of insights into how both that matchup and the rest of the season could go. So before we revisit a dizzying final sequence, let’s dig into what the Game of the Year taught us and what it suggests about how the next two months could unfold.
That conversation starts with Antonio Brown. When the Steelers’ all-world receiver was escorted into the locker room after a nasty end zone collision early in the second quarter, it was easy to assume the worst. The replay of Brown crashing into Patriots safety Duron Harmon prompted many to worry that Brown had broken his leg, and the notion that another transcendent talent could be stolen from us fit right in keeping with the theme of this season. Thankfully, the current prognosis is that Brown suffered only a partially torn calf muscle, which reportedly doesn’t require surgery and will keep him sidelined until the postseason. The city of Pittsburgh can collectively exhale. With the reeling Texans and winless Browns left on the Steelers’ schedule, it would have been wise for head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. to keep the league’s best receiver out for the next two weeks even if he had been deemed healthy enough to play. Because while Pittsburgh managed to survive Brown’s absence for stretches Sunday, the fate of this team is inextricably tied to one of the few players in football who can take over a game on his own. Brown changes the entire complexion of this offense by excelling on both structured and ad-libbed routes; he’s like a classical trumpet player who also happens to be the world’s best jazz improviser.
Brown’s injury also continues the maddening trend of Pittsburgh’s offensive difference-makers never sharing the field against New England. Between Brown going down this week, Le’Veon Bell missing previous games as the result of suspension and injury, or wideout Martavis Bryant serving a season-long ban in 2016 for repeated drug violations, this unit can’t stay intact when it comes time to face the Patriots. But the players Pittsburgh did have for Sunday’s entire contest showed up in considerable ways, and that begins with its do-it-all running back.
Bell was due for a monster game against a depleted Patriots linebacking corps, and he didn’t disappoint. The NFL’s leading rusher finished with 117 yards on 24 carries (and added five grabs for 48 receiving yards) to give the Steelers a dependable force in the ground game. That was to be expected, though. Less certain were the contributions from Pittsburgh’s role players, but each proved more than up to the challenge.
There was a Bryant-shaped hole in the Steelers offense when these teams collided for the AFC title last January, and the Steelers’ no. 2 receiver made his presence felt Sunday. His full-extension, 39-yard snag on the first play of the second quarter was the exact sort of play Pittsburgh couldn’t summon in these teams’ prior meeting, and Bryant followed that up with a gorgeous one-handed touchdown catch to close out the half. New England used the exact same coverage philosophy that it has in the past against the Steelers: Cornerback Malcolm Butler was assigned to Brown and given safety help over the top, while the Pats’ no. 1 cornerback (Stephon Gilmore in this case) matched up alone against Pittsburgh’s secondary threat (Bryant). The Steelers need Bryant to win that matchup from time to time, and he proved this week that that shouldn’t be a problem. Pittsburgh also didn’t have JuJu Smith-Schuster in the fold last season, and the rookie receiver showcased all the ways he can affect an outcome against New England. The 2017 second-round pick finished with 114 yards (69 of them coming on what, for a fleeting moment, appeared to be the biggest play of the game) and was a consistent menace on crossing routes.
Pittsburgh’s offensive performance was a sign that this team can present significant issues for New England, especially if Brown is on the field. Ben Roethlisberger only solidified that line of thinking with his performance. After stringing together a month of brilliant outings, the quarterback turned in a gem against the Pats. The 14-year veteran finished 22-of-30 passing for 281 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, all while maneuvering the pocket well and throwing accurate darts. This version of Roethlisberger will make the Steelers offense as dangerous as it’s ever been entering the playoffs if Brown (and everyone else) is healthy. The problem in Week 15 is that the other team’s quarterback was Tom Brady.
Save for a head-scratching interception in the third quarter, Brady had another excellent day against the Steelers, a team that he’s historically tormented. He went 22-of-35 passing for 298 yards with a touchdown. Still, Pittsburgh found some success by altering its approach from zone to man coverage, and the pick was a prime example. On third-and-2 with 4:40 left in the third quarter, the Steelers played tight man off the snap, taking away the quick crossing routes Brady wanted to hit for an easy first down. That small delay allowed enough time for defensive end Stephon Tuitt to force Brady up in the pocket, where nose tackle Javon Hargrave was waiting to fall into the quarterback’s lap. Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan worked about as well as coordinator Keith Butler could have hoped. There was just one 6-foot-6 exception: Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk was virtually unstoppable during the second half. Pittsburgh’s man coverage was able to stifle just about every other pass catcher the Patriots have, but Gronk did the on-field equivalent of stuffing safety Sean Davis in a wood chipper for the final two quarters. Brady was free to hit Gronkowski up the seam any time he wanted down the stretch. Gronk hauled in three catches for a very nice 69 yards on New England’s final drive alone; Brady didn’t even try to throw the ball to anyone else. All four of his targets went to Gronkowski, and when Pittsburgh left Davis one-on-one against him on the two-point conversion attempt following Dion Lewis’s 8-yard touchdown run, Gronk reacted as if he were insulted by the strategy. Every Patriots team has subtle differences that make it so formidable. This season’s version has glaring holes on defense, but it also has a healthy and dominant Gronkowski to crunch an opposing secondary against his forehead like a Bud Light can. There are moments — such as New England’s final drive Sunday night — when that and an MVP quarterback are enough.
Well, that and a little luck. The Steelers responded to the Pats’ go-ahead score with a last-gasp drive starting from their own 21-yard line, with Smith-Schuster dramatically scampering down the sideline and James lunging toward the goal line. The latter play appeared to give Pittsburgh both the game and home-field advantage until a review ruled that James had lost control of the ball as he fell to the ground. I don’t want to turn this into a treatise about the NFL’s catch rule — that could be worthy of its own 1,000-word footnote — but by any rational definition, what took place on the throw to James should be considered a catch and a touchdown. If a player has possession of the ball when it crosses the plane of the end zone, his team should get six points. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. If anyone can watch a given replay and determine with certainty whether a play results in a catch, we should put that human in charge of solving global warming, because they’re the smartest person on the planet.
The chaos that followed on the ensuing two plays — Roethlisberger’s 3-yard completion to Darrius Heyward-Bey and subsequent tipped interception on a pass intended for Eli Rogers — was the correct sequence from Pittsburgh. With about 12 seconds remaining, the Steelers’ decision to line up and take one more shot at the end zone in an attempt to avoid handing Brady the ball in overtime was smart. Throwing into a crowd of bodies on an ill-fated slant route over the middle was not.
When the dust settled and Harmon came down with the ball, the fight for home-field advantage in the AFC was all but over. With the Bills and Jets left on their schedule, the Pats aren’t likely to lose again during the regular season. That leaves the Steelers hoping that two wins against careening opponents will allow them to stave off the Jaguars (who own the tiebreaker by virtue of a head-to-head victory in Week 5) and claim a first-round bye. Based on all that took place Sunday night at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh has what it needs to earn a rematch with New England 34 days from now and push the Patriots to the brink when it does. That showdown will more than likely come at Gillette Stadium, though, opening the door for the Steelers to once again wonder what might have been.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Jaguars and Rams were two of the five worst teams in the NFL last season. One year later, it’s conceivable that they could meet in the Super Bowl. While Patriots-Steelers duel Sunday left no reason to believe that those aren’t the two best teams in football, it’s worth noting that both Jacksonville and Los Angeles were dominant in Week 15. Sure, the Jags had the benefit of hosting a cratering Texans team (that’s starting to play fast and loose with head coach Bill O’Brien’s job security), but this game still represented a dismantling of a division opponent. The Jacksonville front four terrorized backup quarterback T.J. Yates, who was sacked four times, hit nine, and finished 12 of 31 passing for 128 yards. No one would have blamed Yates if he’d just taken his ball and gone home.
It’s what the Jags did on offense that made their 45–7 showing so intriguing, though. Blake Bortles threw for 326 yards with three touchdowns — his third consecutive outing with a passer rating of 119.8 or better. Over the past month, Bortles has slowly turned me into that Alonzo Mourning meme. His numbers have been startlingly good, and the throws he’s making align with the stats. He went a perfect 3-of-3 on deep throws against Houston, including a beautifully placed pass to Keelan Cole along the left sideline for a 42-yard gain late in the first quarter.
Cole finished with seven catches for 186 yards in what was easily the best outing of his career. While Bortles’s newfound competence is the biggest variable in the Jags’ dark-horse Super Bowl hopes, the emergence of players like Cole has been huge. The 24-year-old rookie out of Kentucky Wesleyan showed flashes early in the season, and he broke through Sunday. The Jags defense is the best in football and can keep the team in games against anyone in the league, but the team’s recent ability to scrape together an offense, though, has taken Jacksonville from a fun, quirky upstart to a title contender.
The Rams’ turnaround has been equally impressive. First-year coach Sean McVay’s team went into CenturyLink Field on Sunday and throttled Seattle in a 42–7 rout. Every element of what makes L.A. an NFC threat was on display. Receiver Pharoh Cooper averaged 26 yards on two kick returns for a special teams unit that ranks second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Aaron Donald tormented Russell Wilson with three sacks, four quarterback hits, and a forced fumble. Wilson was sacked seven times in a game that more closely resembled a Jaws sequel than a matchup between potential playoff teams. Todd Gurley piled up 180 total yards with four touchdowns, further demonstrating the form that electrified the league as a rookie and becoming a factor in the passing game. Gurley already has more receiving yards (630) than he did in his first two seasons combined. Just give McVay the Coach of the Year award now.
McVay’s Rams and Doug Marrone’s Jags were charming stories for a while, but Sunday proved each team has moved beyond that status. L.A. (plus-166) and Jacksonville (plus-165) rank first and second in point differential, and the Rams are likely to retain the top spot in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings after this weekend. Not even a year after finishing as NFL bottom-feeders, both clubs have real Super Bowl dreams.
2. The thought of Aaron Rodgers riding in to save the Packers’ season was fun while it lasted. Green Bay’s star quarterback looked awfully rusty in his first game back after missing eight weeks with a broken collarbone. Rodgers tossed three interceptions — his most in a game since 2009 — on a trio of passes that were equal parts poor decision-making and poor execution. His third pick, on a downfield attempt intended for Jordy Nelson, was uncharacteristically underthrown. Carolina did all it could to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, using a steady diet of blitzes and stunts. This 31–24 loss all but guarantees the Packers will miss the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, and the long odds mean that the team may be best served sitting Rodgers for the final two games.
On the flip side, the Panthers’ impressive victory puts them firmly in the driver’s seat of the NFC playoff race. At 10–4, they now hold a two-game lead over the Seahawks and Cowboys in the wild-card hunt, and they have what amounts to a three-game lead over Detroit thanks to a head-to-head victory in October. Cam Newton had his best outing of the season against Green Bay (20-of-31 passing for 242 yards with four touchdowns), and tight end Greg Olsen reminded everyone what he means to this unit by tallying nine catches for 116 yards. With Olsen and Christian McCaffrey creating mismatches in the middle of the field, this passing game has an element that it’s lacked during the rest of Newton’s tenure. Factor in a devastating front four, and Carolina has more than enough firepower to compete in the NFC.
3. In the wake of allegations of misconduct and a damning Sports Illustrated investigation, the Panthers have announced that owner Jerry Richardson will sell the team at the end of the 2017 season. News broke last week that Carolina had started investigating Richardson’s workplace behavior, and on Sunday the NFL made clear that it was taking the investigation over. Then, SI published a report with new details about Richardson’s inappropriate conduct, noting that he or the team has reached settlements with at least four former Panthers employees.
As soon as it became clear that Richardson was under investigation, the most likely outcome was that the 81-year-old would be forced to relinquish the team. Now, that process has been expedited. The league’s investigation will almost certainly continue after this news, and it should.
4. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that 2017 will be Marvin Lewis’s final season as the Bengals’ head coach, and it’s probably best for both sides to part ways. Cincinnati hired Lewis in 2003, making him the league’s second longest-tenured head coach behind only Bill Belichick. Any notion that his Bengals run should be considered a disappointment because of the team’s playoff shortcomings is downright laughable. Cincy was the scourge of the AFC when Lewis took the reins. It had been 13 years since the franchise had finished with a winning record or made the postseason. Lewis took the Bengals there seven times, including five straight appearances from the 2011 to 2015 seasons. He may have gone winless in the playoffs, but Lewis brought the Bengals back to relevance.
That said, relationships can go stale over a decade and a half, and Cincy looked listless during Sunday’s 34–7 loss to the Vikings. The Bengals still boast a reasonable amount of talent on both sides of the ball when healthy, but at this point they like a team in need of a change. Early indications are that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons will be considered candidates to be Lewis’s successor, neither of whom would be a surprising choice for an organization that’s long prized familiarity over innovation. With the right jolt of energy, though, the Bengals may be back in the mix sooner rather than later. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin and the front office have a track record of accruing talent — even if they don’t often retain it in free agency.
5. Watching Teddy Bridgewater take the field to a standing ovation was the best moment of Week 15. Minnesota’s huge lead over the Bengals prompted the Vikings to insert Bridgewater in relief of starting quarterback Case Keenum, and the response from the Minneapolis crowd was so loud that Bridgewater couldn’t even hear the play call in his helmet. When Bridgewater dislocated his knee and suffered a torn ACL in August 2016, the injury was thought to be so severe that there were questions about whether he would ever play again. Fewer than 16 months later, Bridgewater was back on the field. I’m getting emotional as I write this.
After the game, many of Bridgewater’s teammates were asked about what it was like to watch him walk into the huddle. Kyle Rudolph’s response was my favorite. “When Teddy got hurt, the devastation that ran through our entire team, there was no way we were going to be able to continue practicing, and we didn’t,” Rudolph told the Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling. “And then, to talk to him in the hospital that night, I knew there was no way he would be done playing football. He was so determined to get back out there and play. Today was not a surprise for me.”
The Vikings, however, are a surprise. They improved to 11–3 after limiting Cincinnati to just 42 yards (on seven drives) in the first half. That’s almost impossible. If Minnesota can beat the Packers (who may not start Rodgers) on Saturday and the reeling Bears on New Year’s Eve, it could put itself in position to go through the Super Bowl without ever having to leave home.
6. The Eagles offense rose to the occasion in its first full game without Carson Wentz, but bigger tests remain on the horizon. Nick Foles looked more than capable of piloting Philadelphia for most of Sunday’s contest against the Giants, throwing four touchdown passes in a surprisingly tight 34–29 victory. But there were moments when the gap between Foles and Wentz was clear. Olivier Vernon’s strip sack of Foles at the end of the first quarter came on the sort of play Wentz has shrugged off all fall, and the Eagles struggled on third down (6-of-13). Still, Foles was sharp in the red zone, and Philly scored four touchdowns in six trips.
The Eagles’ biggest concern Sunday came on defense, where cornerback Jalen Mills endured a miserable afternoon. He was flagged for defensive holding twice and was put in a blender by wide receiver Tavarres King on a touchdown late in the first quarter. The Eagles managed to right the ship in the second half, but Eli Manning had far too many easy throws against what’s supposed to be a top-shelf unit.
Philly bumped its record to 12–2 and clinched a first-round bye. Still, the team we saw Sunday didn’t resemble a Super Bowl threat in the NFC.
7. Buffalo’s victory over the Dolphins offered a perfect example of its winning recipe — and was a reminder of how unforgivable the Week 11 decision to start Nathan Peterman was. Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy didn’t post mind-blowing numbers in Sunday’s 24–16 win, but both guys showed off their ability to devastate an opposing defense at any given moment. McCoy racked up 46 yards on his first eight carries and caught a wheel route down the sideline for a 16-yard touchdown. Taylor recorded 224 passing yards and made a series of subtle contributions. On a third-and-8 early in the third quarter, Miami sent cornerback Bobby McCain on a slot blitz off the offense’s left side. Taylor calmly avoided McCain in the backfield, kept his eyes upfield, and scampered 17 yards to get a first down. Taylor is an undeniably flawed quarterback, but he’s also undeniably talented, and he keeps this offense afloat in ways that other guys can’t.
The Bills’ offensive infrastructure is such that a traditional, immobile passer has virtually no chance to succeed — which is what made the team’s decision to bench Taylor in favor of Peterman a month ago borderline malpractice. Giving away a game in the middle of a playoff race is ludicrous under any circumstances, but it’s truly reckless for a franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade and a half.
Buffalo now sits at 8–6 and would be the AFC’s second wild-card team if the season ended right now. It also has a visit to the Patriots — who will turn their attention to trying to hold off the Steelers for home-field advantage — on Sunday. The team the Bills are trying to outpace, the Ravens, get the Colts and Bengals over their final two games. It’s likely that Buffalo will miss a playoff berth by a single game after choosing to make its team worse in the middle of the season.
8. The Chiefs’ running game and offensive line put in work in their potential division-sealing win over the Chargers. Kareem Hunt ran amok against L.A.’s defense Saturday, turning 24 carries into 155 yards with a touchdown and adding seven catches for another 51 yards with a score. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz pitched a virtual shutout in the 30–13 win, limiting Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to just one combined hurry on quarterback Alex Smith’s 36 dropbacks.
Kansas City’s win featured the exact combination of factors that it needs to be relevant in the postseason: a spotless game in coverage from cornerback Marcus Peters (who locked down Keenan Allen for much of the game and had two interceptions), a vintage performance from Justin Houston (five pressures, including a hit on Philip Rivers on his second interception), a dominant outing from the offensive line, and a stray deep shot to Tyreek Hill on the outside. That may be a lot to ask, but that version of the Chiefs has the potential to cause problems in the AFC.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Stephon Tuitt’s unconventional sack on a T/E twist.
Most of the time, when teams run a twist that involves an interior player slanting outside and an edge rusher looping inside, the goal is to create a free lane for the quicker rusher while the bigger guy occupies two blockers. For the Steelers, it’s the interior guys who often become the real pass-rush threat on these plays, and that’s because Tuitt and Cameron Heyward are too strong for opposing tackles to slow down in close quarters. On Tuitt’s quarterback hit to force a crucial third-down incompletion late in the third quarter, he was too explosive for Pats backup right tackle Cameron Fleming to pick off while Fleming was trying to recover. Pittsburgh runs a ton of games designed to get Tuitt and Heyward to the quarterback, and the success of those stunts will play a key role in the Steelers’ playoff fortunes.
10. This week in tales of the tape: Roethlisberger’s first-quarter touchdown pass to Eli Rogers on a run-pass option was one of several big plays created by play action.
Entering Week 15, Roethlisberger had used play action on just 9.6 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, the lowest rate in the league. Yet it was a staple of the Steelers’ game plan against New England. Roethlisberger went 3-of-4 passing for 75 yards with a score when using a play fake, good for a passer rating of 132.3. On the touchdown to Rogers, Roethlisberger had the option of handing the ball to Bell coming off the left side. The run action from the offensive line pulled the Pats’ linebackers in that direction, giving Roethlisberger a clear throwing line the moment he yanked the ball back. With Bell in the backfield, I don’t understand why these plays aren’t more common for Pittsburgh.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
On a day when the catch rule proved more opaque than ever, Damiere Byrd taught us one thing: One ass equals two feet.