Patriots

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

The Raiders gave Stephen Gostkowski plenty of time to think about the 62-yard kick he was about to line up when they called a timeout just before the end of the first half. Didn't matter. Gostkowski returned to his spot, watched a good snap turn into a good hold, which turned into a Patriots record.

It was the longest field goal in Patriots history, making it the longest in Stephen Gostkowski's career as he bested his previous record of 58 yards set earlier this season. It was also the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day for Gostkowski, who went four-for-four on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in his team's 33-8 win over the Raiders in Mexico City. 

When asked about the half-ending kick, Gostkowski credited his teammates for putting him in position to kick it. They got from their own seven-yard line with 33 seconds left to the Raiders 45-yard line with five seconds remaining. A 20-yard run by Dion Lewis and completions to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski did the trick. 

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"I think every time I kick a long kick, it's Gronk who makes the catch right beforehand," Gostkowski told reporters. "It's a nice little polish connection. It was cool. You can wait your whole career and not get a kick like that. It's a very opportunistic job. You're only as good as the opportunities you get. I got a good opportunity, and I'm glad I took advantage of it."

The longest kick Gostkowski tried in warmups was from 60 yards away but he had no concerns about trying to make something longer. Having kicked at altitude all week at the Air Force Academy, he knew his range would be better than it usually is. 

"I don't usually go past 60 in warmups," he said. "I hit one and I made it by a good bit. I knew that coming up short -- if I hit it good -- probably wasn't going to happen. Warm weather, altitude, the ball is going to fly. I just tried to concentrate on getting a good foot on it , making sure it stayed straight enough. Got the opportunity, took advantage of it. It's exciting for the whole team."

Gostkowski also used the extra oomph he had in Mexico City to boot six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, keeping the NFL's leading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.8 yards per return) from burning the Patriots in that phase.

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A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'

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A little deja vu for Belichick: 'It was a similar ending to the Seattle game'

When asked on a conference call if Sunday's matchup with the Steelers reminded him of any of his previous close-and-late finishes with the Patriots, Bill Belichick had a relatively quick reply. 

"It was a similar ending to the Seattle game," he said, referring to Super Bowl XLIX, which of course ended on the most famous goal-line interception in NFL history. Even down to the inward-breaking route in the final moments, Duron Harmon's pick had similarities to the one Malcolm Butler made to win a Lombardi Trophy.

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"The difference in that game was they had to score a touchdown," Belichick added. "They were down by four. This one, the field goal changed it, which kind of highlights the importance of the two-point play. Had we not hit that two-point play they would've just kneeled on the ball and kicked the field goal at the end. There were so many big plays in that game."

The two-point conversion that the Patriots executed with less than a minute left can get lost in the shuffle in game recaps, but it was in many ways a game-winning play -- even though the Patriots already had a one-point lead before Tom Brady floated his pass to Rob Gronkowski in the back corner of the end zone.

The fact that Gronkowski was so open, after a quick move at the line of scrimmage, made it seem like a foregone conclusion. But as Belichick explained, it was one of many critical plays in the final minutes that led to the dramatic Patriots win. 

"Just go back through the fourth quarter of the game. Really every play is a huge play," Belichick said. "A difference in any of those plays in the fourth quarter -- maybe call it the second half of the fourth quarter on, the last seven or eight minutes -- a change in any one of those plays could've effected the outcome of the game.

"That just to me showed how competitive the game was, and how critical every little thing is. Each play, each player, each call, each situation. It was a great football game."

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Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

Mix of fear, hubris and disorganization led to Steelers' downfall

PITTSBURGH -- A weird mix of fear, respect and hubris led the Steelers meltdown Sunday evening.

All day and into the night, they did all the right things. Minimal mental stupidity. Great resilience. Mostly outstanding execution. Unforced physical errors at a minimum. 

For 59 minutes and 26 seconds they were on it. They had the Patriots where they wanted them. The elephant in the room? The Steelers had embraced it. There were fireworks. The kitchen was lit. Every other metaphor Mike Tomlin had used to whip up his team and fanbase worked. 

Then they short-circuited and kicked it away in the final 34 seconds.  

First, they burned a timeout at the end of the Juju Smith-Schuster catch-and-run that put the ball at the 10. That left them no way of stopping the clock aside from spiking the ball or throwing incomplete, which -- as we would see -- the Steelers opted not to. That bad time management was Mental Gaffe No. 1. 

PATRIOTS 27, STEELERS 24

We’d seen that before. Coming out of the two-minute warning in Super Bowl 49, the Seahawks burned their final timeout ON AN INCOMPLETION and that set the stage for their unprecedented (until Sunday) mental disintegration. To adeptly work clock management and manage down, distance and score while understanding how the game is playing out demands a little bit of zen. Bill Belichick praised Pittsburgh's outstanding game management earlier in the week. And those weren't empty words. The Steelers had been brilliant in executing comeback after comeback and recording four buzzer-beating wins. Now, though, they were on a slippery, sloppy slope. 

Next came the touchdown throw to Jesse James and Mental Gaffe No. 2. 

The reality of the reversal that hasn't been highlighted is simple. Either James didn't know the rule, chose to ignore it or, he too got swept away. His first job was to make the catch. He’s not a rookie. He's not a scrub. Presumably he watches games. It’s December. They coach this stuff every day. Or should. 

You can’t stick the ball out and put the fortunes of your team at the mercy of your grip strength. James did.  Forget the chest-puffing “trying to make a play . . . ” crap that’s pouring forth. One job. Catch it. Don’t bring the officials into it. Monkey roll into the end zone if you have to. 

From there, the Steelers threw in-bounds to Darrius Heyward-Bey and he wasn’t able to get out of bounds. Tick, tick, tick. Mental gaffe No. 3. And now the Steelers were on the precipice, clock running. 

In the 2015 season opener, the Steelers came undone in a loss at Foxboro. They didn't cover Rob Gronkowski on multiple plays. They looked unprepared. They got croaked. After the game, Tomlin complaining about headset interference. Ben Roethlisberger complained about the Patriots synchronized shifting on the defensive line. The loss was anybody’s fault but theirs. 

Now, with homefield and a chance to exorcise the Patriots demon in this game Tomlin walked the verbal plank for, confusion reigned. 

Roethlisberger said he got to the line with the intention of clocking it. The Steelers would kick the field goal and take their chances in overtime against a reeling defense.

 “I felt like that was the thing to do,” Roethlisberger said. “But it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it! Run a play!’ At that point, everyone thinks I’m going to clock it and we didn’t have time to get everyone lined up.”

Terrific. Play of the year and you’re disorganized. And you’re trying to get the most well-prepared and anal team in NFL history for fall for the banana in the tailpipe.Like the Seahawks figuring the Patriots would never expect a pass and opting to throw into the teeth of coverage rather than taking a calculated risk with a fade. 

And here’s where the hubris comes in. Asked about the end-zone slant to Eli Rogers that was ricochet-picked, Tomlin said, “We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

The words are “we play to win.” What he meant was, “we played to win on our terms..” With Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley lobbying to clock it and send the game to overtime, Tomlin -- who built this game up for a month -- injected himself and led with his chin. Mental gaffe No. 4.

This isn’t the NHL. You don’t get downgraded for the win if it comes in extra time. The Steelers are most likely traveling to Foxboro in January because Jesse James wasn’t tight on the rules -- blame him or the coaches for that -- and because Tomlin didn’t want to win the game, he wanted to win the game a certain way.

If that’s luck, the Patriots are lucky.

Back in 2009, Bill Belichick, iin a game at Indianapolis, went for it on fourth-and-2. That, obviously, was a diceroll that -- like Tomlin's on Sunday -- didn't work out. But here's the difference. The Patriots gambled because they didn't like their odds playing straight up. Take the chance to end the game, but don't give it back to Peyton Manning. It was understanding game situation and defensive shortcomings. Appreciating your weakness.

That's not why the Steelers gambled Sunday. They didn't fear overtime. And even though Tom Brady just went through them like poop through a goose, they didn't need to. The Patriots had forced one three-and-out all day. The Steelers were 10-for-16 on third down. They went for the win because winning right there would FEEL a certain way. It would make a certain statement about the Steelers and Tomlin. It would satiate their fans and their egos to see the Patriots on the canvas rather than seeing both teams standing after overtime with one having its hand raised on a decision. 

It took the Steelers an hour of football to push the Patriots to the ledge. But in the final 34 seconds, they were the ones that lost their footing. 

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