I thought I had seen every ending to a football game that’s imaginable in my 47 years on this earth. Then…yesterday happened.
The hype leading up to the showdown at Heinz Field between the Patriots and Steelers was enormous. But the game lived up to it and then some.
So what better time for the return of our Section 326 blog! Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first…the referees got it right. Does the rule stink? Absolutely. But as the rule is written, the call was actually fairly simple. The receiver must maintain control of the ball through the catch…that includes when he lands on the ground. Whether he is over the goal line or not is irrelevant. The precedent was established three years ago when Dez Bryant had a similar touchdown catch called back. The two plays are eerily similar.
So to all the Steelers fans out there, tough cookies. The rules are the rules, and we all know the Patriots always play by them. Well almost always.
Lost in the officiating delirium was the greatness of Tom Brady, who once again led a last minute drive in a game the Patriots had no business winning. As long as this team has Brady, Gronk, and Belichick they will be in the Super Bowl conversation on an annual basis.
Also lost in the final minute frenzy? The Steelers showed their true black and gold colors. The confusion between Big Ben and the Pittsburgh coaches was on full display for the football world to witness. After the game, Ben insisted he wanted to spike the ball to stop the clock. Instead, he went through with the play that ended in an interception only after getting an earful from his offensive coordinator. Can you imagine Brady calling out Belichick like that after a gut-wrenching loss? The answer is of course not, for two reasons.
First, no matter who makes the call, the quarterback is the one who ultimately makes the final decision. Who calls the play is irrelevant. Ben chose to throw a pass over the middle into double coverage with less than ten seconds left in the game. He could have just as easily thrown the ball away once he saw the coverage. But he rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. That is on nobody but you Ben.
Second, this scenario never unfolds if the Patriots have the ball because they are so well prepared for every situation. Everybody on the offense knows what to do in a last second scenario because THEY ARE COACHED THAT WAY. Belichick leaves no stone unturned and is constantly preaching about situational football. Let’s face it…that isn’t exactly Mike Tomlin’s strength. If a team is a reflection of its coach, you saw no better evidence of it than the final minute of yesterday’s game.
So where does that leave us? The Patriots are the top seed with two very winnable home game left against the Bills and Jets. But make no mistake, this team is flawed. The defensive front seven is pedestrian at best and for Patriots fans complaining about the secondary, I point to the complete lack of a pass rush as a much bigger problem. Gilmore, McCourty, Chung and Butler can only stay with elite receivers for so long. At some point, the quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.
But here’s the good news? Every other team challenging the Patriots has its own flaws. Let’s list them off:
► Steelers – Losing Ryan Shazier is devastating. The Steelers defense can be had. And even if Antonio Brown is back, will he be 100%? Plus, does anyone think the Steelers can win in Foxboro?
► Jaguars – This is the one team that legit scares me, even more than the Steelers. Their defense is the best in the NFL, and it’s no fluke. They can rush the quarterback and cover in the secondary. But their quarterback is Blake Bortles. Simply put Brady > Bortles.
► Chiefs – This is not the same team that blew the doors off the Patriots on opening night. Eric Berry proved he could cover Gronk 1-1, which proved huge. But Berry blew out his Achilles, and the Chiefs defense has been average since. Advantage New England.
► Titans – I just watched Jimmy G. march down the field on the Titans defense to set up a game winning field goal. If Jimmy can I’m pretty sure Brady can too.
► Bills/Ravens – These two teams will battle for the final playoff spot. Buffalo may prove to be a bit testy with the Gronk situation as their inspiration, plus playing a team three times in a year is difficult. But Tyrod Taylor doesn’t have the chops to knock of a Patriots team marching to the Super Bowl, and while the Ravens tend to play the Patriots tough in the playoffs, this Baltimore is a shadow of its former self, especially at the quarterback position.
We’ll worry about the NFC later, but for now, the road to the Super Bowl once again goes through Route 1 in Foxboro. I hear the ice fishing in Minneapolis is top-notch in early February.