So…we’re here. Well, almost here. After about a year of talking about the Steelers’ matchup with the Patriots, that game is about to be played. With the Jaguars blowing out the Texans right now, Pittsburgh will not have the opportunity to secure the top seed, but they can set themselves up to clinch the following week, or give them two weeks to do so.
The big news pre-game is that Joe Haden is inactive. There was hope that he would be able to play, and he was a game-time decision, but he was not quite ready to go. But JuJu Smith-Schuster is active, as is Coty Sensabaugh. It will be interesting to see how he and Cameron Sutton split reps at left outside cornerback. J.J. Wilcox is a healthy scratch again after having an ugly game on special teams two weeks ago, drawing two holding penalties that brought back returns, including a touchdown.
The Patriots will also be without a few starters, including a surprise in Chris Hogan being an inactive. Kyle Van Noy and Alan Branch on defense are also down, but they are getting Rob Gronkowski back from a one-game suspension.
The Steelers got the ball first with New England deferring. Following a short kick return from Fitzgerald Toussaint, Le’Veon Bell got the drive started with a 17-yard reception. Adding four on the next play, David DeCastro was flagged for holding on second and six. Bell picked up seven to set up third and eight at the 35. On third down, Ben Roethlisberger with plenty of time to throw looked for Jesse James down the field, but Patrick Chung did a nice job of defending the pass away, resulting in an early Jordan Berry punt. The ball sailed out of bounds at about the 22.
Rookie Cameron Sutton got the start this week over Coty Sensabaugh. Prior to the opening defensive drive, the Steelers showed Ryan Shazier, in the stadium, waving the Terrible Towel to the crowd. On first down, Tom Brady found his running back for 13 yards. Mike Hilton had good coverage on Phillip Dorsett for four over the middle. Dion Lewis picked up five up the middle to set up a third and one. Cameron Heyward was flagged for being offside on the play, which was stopped, giving Brady a free third-down conversion.
At midfield, Brady instantly made them pay, finding Cooks for 43 yards in front of Burns. Lewis added five to get to the two-yard line. Rex Burkhead scored on the following play.
The Patriots continued to hang their kickoffs short, but JuJu Smith-Schuster was able to return the second one beyond the 30. At the 31, Roethlisberger hit Bell for about a 13-yard gain. Antonio Brown caught his first pass of the game, and 100th for the season, for the fifth consecutive year, an NFL record. After an incompletion, Roethlisberger under duress forced a ball to Brown, who converted and picked up yards after the catch down to the 31.
Roethlisberger looked for the homerun ball on the following play to Bryant, but the ball was out of bounds. Going back to Bryant, Stephon Gilmore broke up the pass. On third and 10, Roethlisberger looked for Smith-Schuster coming clean around the left side, picking up the first down with yards after the catch.
Now inside the red zone, Roethlisberger found Eli Rogers for the touchdown, escaping over the middle with a clear path to the end zone. It was his first touchdown in very nearly a full year. The Steelers tied the game at 7-7.
Chris Boswell tried to place his kick short of the goal line as well, but left it shorter than he would have liked, and with the return the Patriots ended up on the 24. Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on first down, but he was held to two yards. Lewis ran over a defender down the field for nine and a first down. Heyward was able to get to Brady on the following play for a sack and a big loss. He was under pressure on the following play as well, but was able to dump the pass off for a short gain. Now third and long, another shallow pass came well short of converting.
Following a 42-yard punt, the offense took over at the 24. Bell was limited to about a yard on first down. Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster for the first down for about 16 yards. Roethlisberger checked down to Bell in the flat for just a yard. Off play action, Roethlisberger threw to James for his first reception of the game, but he could not escape the first defender after a short gain that set up a third and long to open the second quarter.
Bryant opened the quarter with a stellar diving reception on a ball that was frankly overthrown under ordinary circumstances, after Roethlisberger struggled to connect on his first two targets. Following the 39-yard reception, they tried a bubble screen to him that went for no gain. An offensive pass interference penalty negated the play, however. Bell ran for two yards on first and 20. Roethlisberger took a shot to Brown into double coverage in the end zone, and he was injured on the play, helped off while hobbling. On third and 18, Roethlisberger was dropped for a sack, and into deep field goal range. Boswell’s 51-yard attempt was good, giving Pittsburgh a 10-7 lead, the first lead over the Patriots since 2011.
Gronkowski beat Sean Davis for a sizable gain down the field early on the ensuing drive. Brady fired out of bounds on first down from the Steelers’ 33. On second down, Sutton tackled Kenny Britt after a seven-yard gain. Now third and three, Brady was able to find Danny Amendola for the second time on the drive down to the 13.
Lewis was stuffed for no gain on first down from the 14. Hilton broke up a touchdown pass looking for the backup tight end. On third down, Brady’s pass was wide and incomplete, the Patriots settling for a field goal, tying the game at 10-10.
Toussaint made the first coverage man miss but still was held not far beyond the 20. Brown opened the next drive in the x-ray room as Darrius Heyward-Bey checked in. Bell ran up the middle for 10 on the first play, out of 22 personnel. After a one-yarder, a sweep around the left edge added six to set up a third and three. Roethlisberger completed to Smith-Schuster for the chain-mover.
At the 45, Roethlisberger fumbled the snap and had to fall on it for a sack and a loss of two. James Conner, still in after the fumble, was still given the ball, and he found a crease for 10 yards up the middle to set up a third and two. Bell back in for third down, Bell was wide open in the left flat for a conversion, and he picked up some extra yardage for 13. A wheel-hitch route.
Inside the Patriots, 35, play action yielded a sack by Lawrence Guy for a three-yard loss. A short throw to James got five. On another third and long, in long field goal range, Roethlisberger flushed out to his right under pressure and found Bryant flashing himself open for the third-down conversion.
Roethlisberger injured his hand on the play after previously taking a shot to his knee, the Steelers really taking a beating in this game. Fortunately, he had the two-minute warning.
Following the hand injury, the play call was a hand-off to Bell for four yards, which prompted a timeout by the Patriots, their second. A toss to Bell picked up seven. On first and goal from the nine, it was Bell for the third consecutive carry. He avoided a hit in the backfield to pick up a couple. Bell picked up another three as the clock runs down. After the timeout, the Steelers went five wide. Roethlisberger was quickly under pressure but put the ball in play for Bryant, who made a fantastic one-handed catch over the shoulder while using his near-side hand to fend off the defender in coverage. The Steelers nabbed a 17-10 lead as a result. The Patriots took a knee to enter the locker room.