Here are five quick-hitting thoughts from what transpired between the Patriots and the Steelers on Sunday evening . . .
1) Just as you might've guessed. After 60 minutes of football, Eric Rowe-to-Duron Harmon ended up being the connection that determined which team was in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. You guessed that, right? Right.
Capping off one of the most dramatic regular-season wins in recent memory, Rowe batted away Ben Roethlisberger's last-second pass into traffic (which followed a fake spike), and Harmon snagged it to seal the victory. How exactly the Patriots put themselves in that position -- after a total takeover by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski on the final drive, an uncharacteristic breakdown in tackling in the secondary, and a catch that wasn't a catch -- will be broken down in great detail for days. All week, probably. We've already started chipping away at every possible angle. Before moving on to chew on those posts, check out some other notes and nuggets from this instant-classic . . .
Steelers in disbelief pic.twitter.com/kVGzXX11xq— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 18, 2017
2) Antonio Brown's first-quarter leg injury completely changed things for the Patriots defense. Instead of having to play split-safety coverage, they could incorporate more post-safety looks and mix and match a little more often. With Brown in the game, Matt Patricia's unit consistently had multiple sets of eyes on the MVP candidate, typically with Malcolm Butler playing Brown underneath with safety help over the top. Brown's absence should've meant more help on Martavis Bryant or JuJu Smith-Schuster, or another body to defend the run, but the Patriots had trouble capitalizing . . . until the final few minutes rolled around.
3) For most of the night, the Patriots defense simply couldn't get off the field. Less than a week after they couldn't convert a single third down (0-for-11 in Miami), they had trouble stopping the Steelers on any third downs. Ben Roethlisberger and his offense converted 10 of their first 13 third downs -- most of which came after Antonio Brown's first-quarter injury. Bill Belichick consistently harps on the importance of "good situational football," which includes third-down play. Over the last two weeks, good situational football -- on third downs, at least -- has been lacking. In fairness, the third-down issues will be largely forgotten because they made the two most crucial third-down stops in the game at the end. The first came with just over two minutes to go that forced the Steelers to punt and set up what proved to be New England's game-winning drive. The second was Rowe-to-Harmon.
4) The internet was quick to pile on Stephen Gostkowski for his missed extra point in the third quarter. But the kicking operation is a three-man job, and the first couple of elements of Gostkowski's kick seemed to be off in the wet weather. Joe Cardona's snap was low and in tight to holder Ryan Allen. Then Allen had to quickly snag the low flip and spin it upright. The laces were still facing inward when Gostkowski made contact, and the kick missed wide left. The timing on the operation for every kicking unit around the league is so precise (and so sensitive) that a misplaced snap can throw a wrench into the entire process . . . even if it isn't wildly off the mark. Gostkowski made a 32-yarder, a 46-yarder and one extra point on the night.
5) All eyes were trained on Malcolm Butler early in this one. It was expected he'd get Antonio Brown (with help), and he did. But it was Stephon Gilmore who quickly found himself in the spotlight. He made an impressive pass breakup in the first quarter, but was beaten by JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant for long gains soon thereafter. Before the end of the half, Bryant got away with a push-off and beat Gilmore from short range for a touchdown. Gilmore also seemed to have some issues in the running game in the second half. He'd been among the Patriots' best defenders over the last month or so, but this looked like a step back.