Patriots Playoff-Bound After Late Rally in Nailbiter Against Steelers

Was it a catch? That'll be the question on Ben Roethlisberger's incompletion to Jesse James in the end zone in the fourth quarter for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown pass.

But even aside from the ridiculousness of the final minute, Sunday afternoon's marquee matchup between the Patriots and Steelers exceeded the hype that preceded it with a 27-24 New England victory as the team wrapped up its ninth consecutive AFC East title.

For as much as the Patriots were slashed and gashed all afternoon long by Roethlisberger and Le'veon Bell, all it took was one signature moment at the very end of the game to mask a bad game for the defense.

Pittsburgh converted 10 of its 16 third-downs -- a less than ideal number, but nowhere near as inexcusable as JuJu Smith-Schuster's 70-yard catch-and-run on the Steelers' final drive of the game.

On what looked to be a simple 10 or 15-yard gain to get closer to field goal range, the Patriots forgot how to tackle. Smith-Schuster blew right by Jordan Richards along the sideline before zigging and zagging his way across the middle of the field to get all the way down to the New England 10-yard line.

On the very next play, Roethlisberger appeared to deliver the game-winning pass to Jesse James. He appeared to bobble the ball, but not before breaking the plane and completing a "football move" to make it stand up. Since it was inside two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the call for a replay came from upstairs. Stunningly, the play was overturned, giving the Steelers second-and-goal rather than six points.

Two plays later, with the clock ticking and Pittsburgh down to the 7-yard line, Roethlisberger fake spiked the ball. An actual spike would have stopped the clock and allowed Chris Boswell to attempt a 31-yard field goal to tie the game, but Roethlisberger instead looked to Eli Rogers in the end zone.

Eric Rowe, who struggled – along with the rest of the secondary – in coverage at times in the game, got his hand on the ball and popped it up in the air, where it stayed until it fell into the arms of Duron Harmon for one of the more improbable finishes in recent memory and securing the win for the Patriots, who are now 11-3 and in possession of the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Even with a pedestrian – at times – effort from Tom Brady, he made his MVP case loud and clear on New England's final full offensive possession (minus a kneel-down) with some help from Rob Gronkowski.

Trailing 24-19, Brady and the Patriots took over at their own 23 with 2:06 remaining. The drive nearly ended as soon as it started, Brady almost throwing what would have been a game-ending interception on the first play of the series. Brady had already been picked off once, making it his fourth straight game with an interception.

Each of the next two plays, Brady remembered what life was like with Gronkowski again after missing him last week. Identical seam routes yielded identical 26-yard gains for Gronk, which was right before the big man showed off his flexibility to keep the ball off the turf for a 17-yard gain to give New England first-and-goal.

Dion Lewis scored with 56 seconds left on the clock for what wound up being the game-winning score on the very next play. Gronk hauled in the two-point conversion – again, in man coverage – to give the Patriots a 27-24 edge which held for the final after the absurd finish.

Brady finished the game 22 for 35 passing for 298 yards, throwing a touchdown to Brandin Cooks in addition to the pick. Gronkowski had nine catches for 168 yards overall, the yardage enough for a new career-high. His last game out prior to his suspension, with 147 yards against the Bills, is now the fifth-best mark of his career.

Lewis led the Patriots in rushing, with 67 yards on 13 carries. It was a good bounceback game for Lewis after being held to just 14 yards against the Dolphins last week.

New England couldn't escape the game without a significant injury, which was suffered by Rex Burkhead early in the third quarter. Burkhead left with a knee injury and was immediately ruled out for the rest of the game; his condition is still not known. Burkhead had scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give the Patriots a very early 7-0 lead on the Steelers, his sixth total touchdown in his last four games.

Prior to his interception, Roethlisberger was 22 for 30 passing for 281 yards and a pair of touchdown throws to Eli Rogers and Martavis Bryant, respectively. Bell carried the ball 24 times for 117 yards and added five catches for 48 yards.

Pittsburgh's own resident MVP candidate, receiver Antonio Brown, left the game with a calf injury in the second quarter after recording just two catches for 24 yards. Initial reports indicated Brown was taken to an area hospital. Multiple outlets, including ESPN's Adam Schefter and Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, have since reported Brown is expected to return for the playoffs.

The Steelers are also 11-3 but are currently the AFC's No. 2 seed based on the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England. The Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) are lurking as the No. 3 seed. The top two seeds will receive a first-round bye, something the Patriots have accomplished every year since 2010.

New England is home again next week for the first time since Nov. 26, when it will welcome the Buffalo Bills (8-6) to Gillette Stadium. The Bills are still alive for a wild-card berth, which would mark their first postseason appearance since 1999. They currently own the longest active postseason drought in North America's "Big Four" sports.

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