By Michael James
The Tribe Sports
MADRID – Even from thousands of miles away from America, on vacation here in Madrid, Spain, I could have told you that the Pittsburgh Steelers would not defeat the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski in the AFC showdown of the season.
Why? Because history shows that in the biggest games on the biggest stage against the New England Patriots, nearly every single opponent, outside the New York Giants in a pair of stunning Super Bowl wins, tries too hard to defeat a team they have already pretty much beaten.
Put another way, they play to win, which in Patriots parlance means, they play right into the New England Patriots’ hands.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had them this time, didn’t they?
After JuJu Smith-Shuster’s 69-yard catch gave Pittsburgh the ball at the New England 7-yard-line with nine seconds left, you could taste victory, right? Trailing 27-24 with less than ten ticks left, this one was done. The Fat Lady was not only singing, but screaming at the top of her lungs. It was all over but the crying, only this time, there would be Patriots tears.
Suddenly, it was over, just not the way you figured. Because the Pittsburgh Steelers did what all other opponents of the New England Patriots do when they have Tom Brady and crew on the ropes. Instead of a chip shot field goal which would have forced overtime and given them an even better chance of beating New England, Mike Tomlin and Big Ben Roethlisberger went for it all.
Interception. Game over. New England wins. Again.
Today, and forevermore, Pittsburgh fans will gnash their teeth, curse the NFL rules and referees over the touchdown that wasn’t, an overruled 10-yard catch by tight end Jesse James, who was determined to have not maintained control of the ball as he crossed the goal line with less than 30 seconds left.
Whether or not this argument has substance is immaterial. The fact is that we are only left with the decision. Patriots 27, Steelers 24.
This is because – Jesse James’ possible touchdown or not – Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger did not do what Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would have likely done in the same situation. Which was to have trotted out the field goal kicker and lived to fight in overtime.
Which shows that the Steelers, like every other team in the league, have not learned from history what to do when it comes to the New England Patriots. They have not learned to play smart football when everything is on the line.
More than anything, they have not learned that ALL controversial calls since Tom Brady has been at the helm of the New England Patriots go the Patriots way.
They have not learned that taking any other chance than the most cautious and sure will result in the deep feeling of emptiness they have in their collective guts today.
They have not learned that New England never beats itself. They simply wait for their opponents to do the job for them.
Possibly no team experiences this feeling more than the New York Jets, who have the Patriots beaten at least once in their annual two-game division showdowns every single season – until they don’t.
There is always some unforeseen circumstance, foible or folly that replaces defeat in the sure jaws of victory for the Jets against the Patriots. And you know what? No matter how many times it happens, the Jets rinse and repeat the exact same mistakes that lead to the exact same results year in and out.
As a matter of fact, the same thing happened to the Jets against New England in Week 6, when tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins scored what appeared to be a touchdown that would have cut a New York deficit to 24-21 with 8:24 left in the game. New England would go on to win 24-17.
For opponents of the New England Patriots, it’s always sour grapes. There’s always a sense that fate, the gods, the NFL, the referees – or something quite impossible to explain – favors the boys from Massachusetts.
What NFL teams and their fans most always fail to accept is what the home team did to hand New England the victory.
Remember that Jermaine Kearse 33-yard catch in Super Bowl XLIX with a minute left that gave the Seattle Seahawks the ball at the 5-yard-line in a game New England led 28-24? Seattle fans could sense back-to-back Super Bowl trophies. Richard Sherman was smiling. It was all over. Seattle would do what the Giants did twice.
Then, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll decided he didn’t want to see Marshawn Lynch grab his crotch after scoring the game-winner and passed the ball from the 1-yard line. Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass and the New England Patriots won the game – as they always seem to do in unreal situations like this.
Need we take a trip through time back to last year’s comeback win by the Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI? The Patriots trailed 28-9 in the fourth quarter. With 9:45 left in a game they seem to have no possibility of winning, and what do they do? Kick a 33-yard field goal to cut the margin to 28-12.
In the same situation, most Patriots opponents would sell out and try to score the touchdown. Even then, New England still needed an impossible two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions – just to tie. But, they had quickly done the math. All they needed now was for Atlanta to “play to win.”
With 8:26 to play, facing a third-and-1 at their own 35 or so, what do the Falcons do? Drop back to pass. Matt Ryan is sacked and fumbles, giving New England great field position in a situation that everybody knows should have been a run. Several plays plus a two-point conversion later, it’s 28-20. Here, fate should still favor the Falcons, but again, instead of running the ball and using up the clock, Atlanta chooses to bury a dead opponent with Matty Ice’s arm.
There’s another disastrous sack on a pass attempt and with just over two minutes left, Brady has the ball and everybody knows what’s going to happen. With 57 seconds left, Brady tosses a touchdown pass and the comeback is complete with a two-point conversion pass to Danny Amendola.
Overtime. Or more accurately put, more time for a New England team whose time would have run out if the Falcons – who once led by as many as 25 points at 28-3 – had only played remotely smart football.
All of this brings me back to the point of this piece. It wasn’t exactly wrong of Tomlin and Roethlisberger to go for the win in regulation. Hell, even the Patriots may have attempted the same, but, then again, a lot of road teams go for the win in that situation. But Pittsburgh was at home and seemingly had all the advantages. So, why not play it safe and try for the win in OT with so many playoff implications attached to the outcome?
But, no. Pittsburgh remembered the 36-17 loss in the AFC title game on a snowy field in Foxborough last January. They remembered four straight losses by an average of 15 points. They remembered having beaten Brady just twice in 17 years, the last time being in 2004. This time, Tomlin and Roethlisberger reasoned, they would not be denied.
Forget the game-tying field goal. Forget another chance in overtime. They wanted it now.
Which always works out perfectly for the New England Patriots.
Interception. Game over. New England wins. Again.
Afterward, many Pittsburgh players wanted to revisit Jesse James’ touchdown that wasn’t. They were so sure he broke the plane with possession of the ball. Me? I was wondering why the referees weren’t discussing the fact that James’ left knee was clearly down before he ever stretched over the goal line at all.
I thought the ball should have been Pittsburgh’s at the 1-yard line with victory in sight. That would have given them the victory for sure, right? A yard away. The clock running out. They still would have had New England right where they wanted them.
Surely, as always, something would have went awry. Which means, we’d still be talking about how in the world the New England Patriots managed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith.