Tomase: Win was nice, but Steelers will be back and they're built to win in Foxboro

John Tomase
December 18, 2017 - 2:44 pm
Le'Veon Bell

Philip G. Pavely/USA Today Sports

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Most of what we learned on Sunday in Pittsburgh is reassuring: Tom Brady isn't done, Rob Gronkowski remains unstoppable, and the crazy fortune that follows the Patriots from win to win is no accident.

But we learned something else during the 27-24 victory that that carries even greater significance -- the Steelers are built to win the rematch.

No one wants to hear it in the euphoria of the Game of the Year and that electrifying final minute that saw the Pats win, lose, and then win again.

But it's as important a development as Duron Harmon's game-ending interception, because for the first time in years, the Steelers represent a legitimate threat, and not simply a pretend one.

They proved that not just by overcoming the loss of wide receiver Antonio Brown, but with a defensive game plan that FINALLY found a way to pressure Brady into rushed throws and uncomfortable decisions.

Brady completed 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. It marked the first time since 2005 he had failed to throw multiple TDs vs. the Steelers, and his completion percentage of 62.86 was the second-lowest of his career against them in 13 starts. He hadn't thrown a pick in eight starts and more than 250 throws dating back to 2005, and it should've been two -- Steelers safety Sean Davis dropped a deflected duck with two minutes left that could've iced the game.

That's the kind of second chance Brady routinely exploits -- the Texans let a similar chance at victory slip through their grasp early this season, and the Atlanta Falcons will have nightmares about Julian Edelman in a pile until they die -- but it shouldn't obscure the ways in which the Steelers proved themselves New England's equal.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made all of the throws except the last one, overcoming Brown's absence to complete 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Martavis Bryant schooled Stephon Gilmore with a diving catch down the sideline that was the exact play the Steelers missed with regularity in last year's playoff defeat.

Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 114 yards, including a 69-yarder in the final minute that set up what looked like the winning score to tight end Jesse James before it was correctly overturned on review.

Pittsburgh also had its answer to Gronkowski in running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 117 yards and a TD, and added another 48 yards through the air.

More importantly, the Steelers exhibited the mental toughness that usually separates New England from everyone else. The Steelers have made furious rallies their trademark all year and on Sunday they nearly did it again, buoyed by the emotional return of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who watched from a luxury box just weeks after undergoing spinal surgery.

The Steelers seemed to have pulled this one out on the back of their own ageless Hall of Fame quarterback, and Big Ben looked as composed as TB12 until the final regrettable interception into sextuple coverage that may or may not have come from the sideline. (The postgame sniping about the play call offers a reminder that Pittsburgh's professionalism will never equal New England's, for whatever that's worth).

We love to crap on Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for failing to alter his scheme despite a decade of Brady shredding it like mozzarella, but Pittsburgh's coaches were largely up to the task this time. They finally shelved their soft zone in favor of man coverage and four-man pressure, harassing Brady with two sacks, six hits, and 11 hurries.

This, of course, left Gronk in man coverage and he made the Steelers pay with nine catches for 168 yards and at least that many flexed muscles. Containing the massive tight end will be Pittsburgh's challenge if and when these teams meet again in the playoffs, and there may not be a solution beyond limiting the damage, but clearly the Steelers' approach gave them more of a chance than the clean pocket and easy throwing lanes of prior seasons.

They can carry that knowledge into the rematch. As inspiring as the Patriots looked on Sunday, they remain a flawed team that too often relies on Brady's magic to save them. That's not to say they can't win another Super Bowl, but history has shown that when the Pats lose in the playoffs, it's often to a team they beat during the regular season, whether it's the 2013 Broncos, the 2010 Jets (remember 45-3?), the 2009 Ravens, or the perfection-busting Giants of 2007.

Could the Steelers join that list? Anyone watching objectively on Sunday knows the answer to that question, Bill Belichick and Co. among them.

So don't be surprised when these teams meet again in the AFC title game, and definitely don't take Pittsburgh lightly. The Steelers are coming to Foxboro, and based on what we saw Sunday, they'll be ready.

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