Week 15 of the NFL saw the most important regular season game of the year, at least in the AFC: the 10-3 New England Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh for a heavy weight fight with the 11-2 Steelers on their home turf.
The winner would take the inside track on the top seed in the AFC playoffs and host the road to the Super Bowl.
For the first time since the two teams have matched up in recent years, the Steelers would have all of their offensive pieces to work with, at least at kickoff. However, they would still be without star linebacker Ryan Shazier for the remainder of the season.
The critical game might as well have been the Rob Gronkowski show. “The Gronk” was simply unstoppable off of a 1-game suspension, which he earned for a total cheap shot in week 13. He redeemed himself to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and then some with 9 catches and 168 yards. To put it in perspective: the Gronk had nearly 170 receiving yards, but Brady threw for less than 300 on the day.
The Steelers featured an impressive offensive attack of their own. Hope seemed lost when star receiver Antonio Brown left the game early with a leg injury, but youngsters JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant stepped up for Ben Roethlisberger and made big plays down the stretch. Running back Le’Veon Bell was predictably dominant on the ground with 117 yards and a score. He was also third on the team in receiving.
In a back-and-forth contest that seemed to just barely favor Pittsburgh, the New England defense came up with a big stop late in the fourth. Trailing by 5, Brady had a chance to lead his signature game-winning drive and all but lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. He did it, but he did it too well.
It took the 40-year old superstar barely more than a minute to drive 77 yards and take the lead, in large part thanks to Gronkowski. Dion Lewis, however, recorded the go-ahead score. Brady scored entirely too quick, and the Steelers would have another shot to tie the game or win it.
In an inexcusably dreadful move that someone on the Patriots was responsible for, New England allowed Smith-Schuster to haul in a short pass from Roethlisberger on the final drive and march 69 yards to set up a first and goal. On the very next play, Roethlisberger hit tight end Jesse James, who reached towards the end zone for a Steelers win. Right?
Wrong. Even though everyone in the world with eyes saw touchdown, the NFL's infamous catch rule veered its ugly head once more. It was ruled that James, while reaching out to cross the goal line, had briefly bobbled the football.
Anyone who cares has seen the play, so you be the judge. I’m not going to pretend I fully understand the NFL’s catch rule, and I also think anyone who claims to is lying in some way or another. Fans in New England will tell you the call was the correct one while fans in Pittsburgh will tell you they got screwed. Unfortunately, I think both are right.
All I know for sure is that the call was overturned, no touchdown. The next Roethlisberger pass was deflected then intercepted in the end zone by New England to seal the deal. So, however you look at the controversial call, the Steelers still had a chance.
Elsewhere, the Jaguars dominated the Texans at home and have clinched a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. T.J. Yates got the nod for Houston, and things didn’t go well against the best defense in football.
Yates completed just 12 passes and was absolutely dominated in every phase. He was able to find DeAndre Hopkins 4 times for 80 yards and a score for the majority of his production. Defensively, the Texans were on the field entirely way too often and struggled to stop Blake Bortles. Bortles posted 326 yards and three touchdowns in the 45-7 blowout.
The Jaguars gained a two-game cushion over the Titans on Sunday as well. The Titans lost on a last-second field goal to the 49ers in San Francisco. Despite the 1-10, the Niners have now won three straight games with newly acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Tom Brady’s former understudy has, in short, looked tremendous in his first few showings as a 49er. I’m starting to think there’s no shame in losing to San Francisco anymore, even with the weak weapons they have. If they build a solid base of players over the next few years to help Garappolo, he could be elite in a hurry.
The Green Bay Packers welcomed back captain and one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers, who needs his Packers to win out and get some help to make the playoffs, tossed three interceptions in his first game back. Facing a tough Carolina defense, he just wasn’t able to score with Cam Newton and Carolina. Green Bay made a push near the end, but the Panthers improved to 10-4 and Green Bay is all but eliminated.
The Saints also picked up a win, meaning they remained tied with the Panthers for first place. However, New Orleans has taken down the Panthers twice, so Carolina will need to get ahead of them by one game if they hope to win the division.
The referees were popular in another big game on Sunday when the Cowboys edged out the Raiders by 3 in Oakland. Dallas took the lead with a field goal after Dak Prescott had moved the chains literally by an index card.
Later, the Raiders would try and take the lead when Derek Carr scurried 8 yards towards the goal line and reached out for the pile on. However, the ball came loose before he was in and went out-of-bounds in the end zone. By rule, the ball is awarded to the defense in this situation as a touchback.
The win means the Cowboys still have an outside shot at the NFC’s final wildcard if they can win their final two games and get some help in the process. This will be no easy task, considering they face Seattle and Philadelphia. However, the Seahawks are a team they’ll need to surpass anyway if they want the final spot. Also, the Eagles may have easily clinched a first-round bye by this matchup.
With week 16 also comes Ezekiel Elliot. Elliot’s suspension is finally at an end and he has rejoined the Cowboys this week.