PITTSBURGH -- Tom Brady sat sideways in a folding chair, his ass on a bright yellow cushion, his left elbow slung over the back of the chair. His back was against the cement wall, his bare feet on the folding chair in front of him, an empty locker was to his immediate right.
Brady was given the last two lockers in his row, which was positioned at the back of the visitor’s dressing room at Heinz Field.
The locker to his immediate at his elbow was empty. His clothes and luggage were neatly placed in the locked next to his feet. His equipment bag was on the floor. His long-sleeved, black Under Armour undershirt and blue compression shorts were still on. He was in no rush as he thumbed his silver phone, intermittently looking up to smile and say, “Awesome…” or some variation of that when a teammate or team staff came by to bang knuckles.
He’d just finished off another win in Pittsburgh. He’d done what he does -- plucked a team’s still-beating heart from its chest and squeezed it tight -- but he’d still needed his defense to pull off a miracle late to finally stop the thing from beating.
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That part came at the very end and it looked just the same as it did when the Patriots won Super Bowl 49 – an opponent melting down at the buzzer. The Steelers felt victimized, persecuted. Their tight end Jesse James scored a touchdown. And then he didn’t because the rules -- the ones that every damn fan and media member know by now and that NFL tight ends should surely know too -- say that you can’t let the ball hit the ground without your full control after a catch. Period. And James failed to do that.
So it was left to the Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, to do what the Steelers have done to team after team this season. Finish them off. And he couldn’t do it. The Steelers sideline short-circuited, someone told Roethlisberger to spike it, someone told him to run a play -- they couldn’t get the story straight --– and he threw into traffic and got picked off. Game.
The game that Mike Tomlin circled, starred and underlined almost a month ago was bungled away. Now it was left to the Steelers to figure out what happened. Judging by the response of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to each postgame question -- sticking out his tongue and making the raspberry noise -- they were having a tough time of it.
Meanwhile, Brady was on his phone, FaceTiming with one of his sons. At one point, you could hear him ask, “How did you do?” and talking about the new Star Wars movie.
Somewhere else in the Patriots locker room, a player was singing the Styx song “Renegade” a late-game staple at Heinz used to fire up the defense. It played prior to the Patriots touchdown drive when Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for 26 yards, 26 yards, 17 yards and a two-point conversion to put the Patriots ahead. There was a 9-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis mixed into that Gronkfest.
Gronk wandered over to Brady from his nearby locker. Gronk showed him his left triceps with a bruise going around it like a tribal tattoo. “Oh my God!” Brady said, laughing at the keepsake.
Gronk headed back to his locker. “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow,” he mumbled.
Hats and t-shirts were being passed out, announcing that the Patriots were AFC East Division champions.
Joe Thuney stopped Malcolm Butler and poked at the blue shirt, “Where’d you get that?” he asked.
“Pro Shop,” Butler answered, walking away with a laugh.
A couple of lockers down from Brady was Brandin Cooks.
“Hey TB,” he called as he crammed a division champs hat down on his head and tugged the brim. “This is new for me.”
“Looks good on you, Cookie,” said Brady
This was the most important game on the NFL’s regular-season slate. The most anticipated. The country was watching; most of it probably praying to see the Patriots upended.
And the country was left unfulfilled. Again.
It was a BS call that “bailed out” the Patriots, just like the Tuck Rule or the one that stripped the Jets of a touchdown this year. Or any other of a dozen lucky breaks New England routinely gets meant that this maddeningly efficient team, humorless coach and arrogant fanbase got to grave dance again when it was the Patriots who were supposed to be dead.
All the Monday morning hot takes that were ready to be taken from the oven had to be thrown in the trash.
The media horde moved from player to player. From Eric Rowe to Duron Harmon -- the principles on Big Ben’s pick. Then over to Dion Lewis, who said he knew the Steelers were going to throw a pick. “Soon as it was overturned, I said, ‘Oh, they gonna blow it.’ You just went from winning the game to having to keep playing. I called it. I said, ‘They about to throw a pick right here.’ I really didn’t think they were gonna throw a pick, but they really did it.”
Dion Lewis says he had a feeling ... pic.twitter.com/yhPFDHN3pd— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) December 18, 2017
They really did.
At the opposite end of the locker room, Elandon Roberts was at his locker, a towel over his shoulder, another around his waist.
“We had the kind of plays that we weren’t looking for on defense,” he explained. “I had my plays that had me saying, ‘Man!’ But it was on to the next play. Short memory. That’s the mentality the whole defense had. Sixty minutes. When you play a 60-minute game like this, they’re gonna make good plays and we’re gonna make bad plays and vice versa. That’s the type of fight it was. That’s a great team over there. And it came down to the last play. A team like that, a game like that makes you come more together as a team because you know the guy next to you got your back.”
The guy who has everyone’s back was still at his locker, still playing with his phone, still holding brief audiences.
After his eighth visit to Pittsburgh, he was in a victorious visitor’s locker room for the sixth time. At 40 years old, he’s almost 16 years removed from the first time he came here. He sat in that folding chair and looked content. At home. Just like the Patriots will probably be for the playoffs.