October 24, 2016
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, heads for the end zone as Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Robert Golden tries to hold him back during the third quarter of an NFL football game at Heinz Field on Sunday, October 23, 2016. Staff Photo by Nancy Lane
PITTSBURGH — In the end the margin of victory in the Patriots’ 27-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday was not 11 points. It was one torn meniscus.
Minus that frayed piece of Ben Roethlisberger’s knee, the Patriots might well have not survived the way they played yesterday at Heinz Field. In the short term that doesn’t matter, because the NFL is a bottom-line business — and the bottom line is the Patriots will travel to Buffalo next weekend at 6-1 and carrying a two-game cushion in the AFC East because Rex Ryan’s team did yesterday what it always seems to do when it is on the cusp of something big. It backslides.
While the Patriots played poorly and won against a Steelers team missing its most important players — Roethlisberger on offense and explosive defensive end Cameron Heyward on the other side — Ryan’s Bills played poorly and fell on their egos in Miami, losing 28-25 to a team that committed 13 penalties but trampled Ryan’s defense for 256 rushing yards and a win that prevented next Sunday’s game from being a meaningful clash in Buffalo for the AFC East lead.
For far too long yesterday there seemed to be a chance that would still be the case, however, because the Patriots couldn’t find a way to create much separation between themselves and depleted Pittsburgh. But in the end, they won because Pittsburgh’s backup quarterback, Landry Jones, couldn’t make the Pats defense pay for allowing four trips into the red zone, and Pittsburgh’s notoriously poor pass coverage of tight ends came back to haunt its defense when the game was still in doubt.
There are two ways to look at this kind of outcome then. You can ignore the many concerning things about it — two lost fumbles, four penetrations into their red zone by a team without its quarterback, second best receiver and a decent tight end, plus a kicker whose GPS seems utterly out of whack after missing another extra point — because they won and again have a two-game lead in the AFC LEast.
And winning is like absolution: Your sins are washed away.
Or you can look at it as a hint that this team may really be no better than the other few good teams in pro football. Fortunately for the Patriots there are barely a handful of them, and far less than that in the AFC. So they can play as they did yesterday and still win on many afternoons, because their opponent will find a way to lose if they can’t quite find a way to win on their own.
Or you can ask yourself these questions: How often do you think a Roethlisberger-led Steelers offense would go 1-for-4 in the red zone? How often would it be 5-of-16 on third down (31 percent conversion rate)? But the more important fact yesterday was it didn’t matter, because Roethlisberger was in street clothes and often wearing a pained expression.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had warned his players all week it had little margin for error because of its missing pieces, yet errors they did make. They had a touchdown pass called back for holding. Jones threw a pass he quite rightly later described as “crappy” that was picked off in the end zone by Malcolm Butler with the ball on the Patriots’ 16-yard line and at least a field goal likely to open the game.
As great quarterbacks so often do, Tom Brady responded to that first mistake by driving his team 80 yards in 13 plays, the final 19 a screen pass to James White for a touchdown on third down. Facing a similar circumstance to the one young Jones had just blown, Brady responded not with a mistake but with a touchdown.
Try as they might, these not so steely Steelers could never fully recover from that, trailing the rest of the day.
Each time the Steelers felt they might be closing in, Brady proved he was the difference between them. They kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 14-13 midway through the third quarter, and Brady came right back and found Gronkowski with a 36-yard touchdown pass on a seam route that unwisely left strong safety (a title may be overstating it) Robert Golden one-on-one with Gronk. Or at least he ended up that way when the second safety unwisely chose to abandon what the Steelers had been doing all day — doubling Gronk on seam routes — and instead turned his back on him to help out on an already covered out route run by Danny Amendola.
“He just ran through the middle of the defense,” Brady said. “Looked like they lost track of him for a little bit.”
How do you lose track of a 6-foot-6 tight end who is the most dangerous player on the planet at his position? Beats me. Beat the Steelers, too.
Then, when the Steelers came away with another field goal to cut the Pats’ lead to four points at 20-16 to open the fourth quarter, Brady answered again with Gronkowski, who out ran poor Golden on a deep cross for a 37-yard gain to the 5-yard line. One play later, LeGarrette Blount trampled his way into the end zone, and it was again a two-score margin and the end of the debate really.
Every time Landry produced three points, Brady produced seven on the next drive. When Landry delivered a red zone interception, Brady responded with a red zone touchdown pass. Had Roethlisberger been healthy, things might have been different. This might have been a classic shootout, the kind of game you talk about all week long. Instead it’s the kind you’ll want to forget as quickly as possible.
It was a win, but it wasn’t the kind that should make you sleep well at night.