It was easy to think that the Pittsburgh Steelers had a chance to do the one thing that’s been avoiding them the last 15 NFL Seasons: Beating the New England Patriots in an AFC Championship Game. After all, the Steelers were on a 9-game winning streak with their last lost against an excellent Dallas Cowboys team (whom they should’ve beaten) while the Patriots supposedly weren’t tested after having a weaker schedule and playing the feeble AFC North, right. And oh yeah, they beat the Steelers early in the season with QB Landry Jones, not Ben Roethlisberger.
Plus, the Steelers were going into the playoffs for the first time with a healthy WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell and C Maurkice Pouncey. Plus, media and fans all felt that if the Steelers would just stick to form, pressure Patriots QB Tom Brady, score touchdowns that everything would be all right, am I correct?
Well, that is why you play the game.
See, no matter how the players feel, the fans feel and especially the media seems, we all know that the Steelers had to show that they could finally beat the Patriots, but beating the Patriots on the field, in which they were 2-9 in their last 11 games. Well, you can make that 2-10 because the Steelers showed up at Gillette Stadium and got destroyed 36-17 in their latest AFC Championship Game, making it the 3rd time that the Steelers have fallen to these guys in this game. The first two times were in 2001 and 2004, and both games were played at Heinz Field.
The Patriots will head to Super Bowl 51 to face the NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, while the Steelers head home.
Am I disappointed? You bet I am. Because once again, the Steelers wasn’t ready to face a team that still has their number. Why? I have no idea. You’d think they would be motivated enough to play this game, after all, the Super Bowl is at stake, right? I can think of 2 times in which the Steelers beat Brady and the Patriots (2004, 2011) and it was because they were properly prepared to fight and were excellent in all 3 phases of the game (Offense, Defense, Special Teams) to get the win. Such a case didn’t happen in this game. There was one team in that stadium that was prepared, and that was the Patriots.
This is a team that’s been there, done that. This is their 6th straight AFC Championship game, so they know how to display the ‘act like they’ve been here before.’ mentality. Not only do they own the AFC East, they own this game too (despite losing to the Denver Broncos in last year’s game), and they also own the Steelers.
This game was no different as the Patriots proved that they’re a team that likes to ‘play to win.’ and they proved that fact when they stormed to an early 10-0 lead. The Patriots even won the coin toss, but didn’t defer, and then went directly into attack mode. Meanwhile, the Steelers were in ‘clumsy way,’ and failed to convert on their first three drives after drops by their receivers and questionable decisions by Big Ben when they were near the first-down marker.
In the Divisional Round vs. KC, P Jordan Berry didn’t punt until the second half, in this game he punted three times in the first quarter alone. After the Patriots scored a 17-yard TD to a wide-open Chris Hogan (More on him later) the Steelers finally went to work, unfortunately, it’s was without Bell, who injured his groin late in the first quarter.
Bell tried to return in the second quarter but was done the rest of the game. Enter backup RB DeAngelo Williams, who played the first three games of the season for Bell when he was on suspension. Williams took the Patriots by surprise as the gained 34 yards on that drive alone. He also scored the team’s first TD on a 1-yard run. But then last week’s hero K Chris Boswell does something that’s non-Boswell-like and misses the extra point, his first of the season. Thus, the Steelers trailed 10-6. Such a miss would prove costly when Brady and the Patriots would strike again when he (on a flea-flicker) found WR Chris Hogan for a 34-yard TD to extend their lead to 17-6. Now mind you, Brady found Hogan for the first score when he was wide-open in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard score. If you’re wondering who Chris Hogan was, then get in line. The Steelers wondered that so much in this game that they continued to leave him wide-open and he would burn them for 180 yards on nine catches and those two touchdowns.
I bet they remember who Hogan is now.
Back to the game. The Steelers had an excellent chance to get close to the Patriots as they appeared to score a TD when Big Ben found TE Jesse James who took the ball over the goal line, but reviews showed that he was a foot-short. All the Steelers needed to do was push the ball over the line for the score, right? Wrong. Williams was stopped two times, and then Big Ben missed a leaping Eli Rogers on 3rd down, bringing in Boswell for an anticlimactic 23-yard FG that only closed the Patriots lead to 17-9. The Steelers knew they blew that opportunity as the first half ended.
The Steelers received the ball to start the 3rd quarter and continued to do nothing, punting the ball back to the Patriots who stuck it to the Steelers in that quarter by scoring 17 unanswered points. When the smoked cleared, the Patriots led 33-9 at the end of the quarter. Former Steelers RB LeGarrette Blount got the ball and ran it right over the Steelers in route to a 1-yard TD and Brady found WR Julian Edelman for the other score. K Stephen Gostkowski provided the 3 points as the Steelers hearts began to drop.
It got even worse for the Steelers when Big Ben threw his first interception of the game, sending the Patriots offense back on the field, but they did the Steelers a favor by settling for another Gostkowski FG, extending their lead to 36-9.
The Steelers finally got another TD late in the 4th quarter when Big Ben found WR Colbi Hamilton for a 30-yard TD and added a 2-point conversion, but it was too little, too late as the Steelers fell 36-17 to the Patriots, who were given the Lamar Hunt trophy as champions of the AFC.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are probably now shaking their heads as they know they weren’t properly prepared to play this team. HC Mike Tomlin stated that the Steelers failed collectively and didn’t play the ‘type of ball that they usually play, and Big Ben said that the Steelers needed to play “a near-flawless game, and they didn’t.” Bell stated that he tried to play through the injury but felt that he was holding the team back.
I feel that all those reasons were valid. For some reason, the Steelers looked out of sync on offense. This was a team that averaged 30 points a game and could only get nine important points against the Patriots. And yes, they only scored 18 against KC last week, but that was KC. This is the Patriots. Totally different story.
I believe in the theory that the things that teams struggle with in the regular season will catch up to them in the postseason and with the Steelers, it was the inexperience with the receivers. Of course, there’s WR Antonio Brown, but you knew he would be double-teamed, which he was as he finished with seven passes for 77 yards and 0 scores. And yes, Hamilton scored a late TD, but he dropped an earlier one, and Sammie Coates was just a disaster, dropping two key passes in the first quarter when the Steelers had a chance. You insert the suspended Martavis Bryant, the injured Markus Wheaton, and TE LaDarius Green, and it probably would be a different story.
Bell’s injury was costly, as the Steelers turned into an on-dimensional team. Sure, Williams scored their first TD, but what else did he do after that? Nothing as he finished with only 34 yards. Big Ben himself finished with 314 yards but was 31-47 passing in contrast to the 32/42 and 384 yards passing by Brady who also passed for three touchdowns with no interceptions.
But it was the defense what cost the Steelers this game, which shouldn’t be any surprise because they’ve been the team’s Achilles heel all season. Granted, they played above-board during their 9-game winning streak, but they went back to their old ways vs. Brady and the offense by missing tackles and leaving Hogan wide open. Their pass-rush is useful despite rookie DT Jason Hargrave getting to him early in the first quarter. The Problem was, the defense made no adjustments after Hogan burned them for those two scores and it continued to be costly. You can’t play like that and expect to have a chance against the Patriots. The Houston Texans proved it, and now the Steelers proved it too.
But overall, it was a good season for the Steelers who started the season 4-5 and finished 11-5 and the AFC North Division. This was a team that didn’t have Bryant for the entire season and lost Wheaton, DE Cam Heyward and eventually Green for the remainder of the season and they still got this far. In my heart of hearts, I figured the best they would do is get to the AFC Championship Game, which they did, but it’s never easy to see them lose this game. But they must now lick their chops and prepare for an off season which I hope means doing whatever it takes to make this team better, especially on defense, because the motto is still the same in football: Defense Wins Championships.
As for 38-year old LB James Harrison, he was asked about his future, and he replied: “I’m not done yet.” I think the Steelers are one-win away from another Super Bowl trip.
And they will get their chance to solve the Patriots next year too as they welcome them into Heinz Field. And then who knows, they might face them again in the playoffs, and that will show whether they will have learned from this game. Time will tell.
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