The New England Patriots gained an edge on home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a dramatic and controversial 27-24 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Steelers tight end Jesse James dove into the end zone for what would have been a go-ahead score with 34 seconds remaining, but a controversial replay review overturned the touchdown.
After a short pass to Eli Rogers, the Steelers were faced with third-and-goal from the six-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger's pass for Rogers was tipped and intercepted in the end zone to end the game.
The Patriots had taken the lead after Steelers safety Sean Davis gave them new life by dropping what would have been a game-clinching interception.
Given a second chance, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took advantage by leading a five-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that ended with an eight-yard run by Dion Lewis. The key play on the drive was an incredible catch by Rob Gronkowski, who snatched the ball off the turf for a 17-yard gain.
The Steelers responded on the ensuing possession as Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 69-yard strike on the first play.
That set up the initial 10-yard touchdown pass to James before the call was overturned.
Sunday's win clinched the AFC East for the Patriots (11-3), who have won the division in nine straight seasons. The loss by the Steelers (11-3) opened the door for the Jaguars (10-4), who cruised to a 45-7 win over the Texans, to grab a first-round bye.
The Steelers also suffered a loss during the game when leading receiver Antonio Brown left in the second quarter with an injured calf.
STEELERS HAVE BEST DEPTH IN NFL
The Steelers would have loved to have had Brown on the field for the final series, but despite the final plays of the game, Pittsburgh's offense barely missed a beat as Roethlisberger was able to spread the ball around against the Patriots.
Brown had two catches for 24 yards before he was injured. Roethlisberger completed passes to seven other receivers while going 22 of 30 for 281 yards on the day. He threw touchdowns to both Rogers and Martavis Bryant, who had four receptions for 59 yards.
Brown is one of the best receivers in the NFL, but the Steelers were able to withstand his absence because they have so much depth at the position. It also helps they have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Roethlisberger and an elite running back like Le'Veon Bell, who had five receptions for 48 yards and ran for 117 yards and a touchdown.
MIKE TOMLIN DOESN'T GET ENOUGH CREDIT
Since taking over as the Steelers head coach in 2007, Tomlin has led Pittsburgh to six division titles, eight playoff appearances and two Super Bowls. But he rarely gets credit as one of the NFL's top coaches. He was able succeed Bill Cowher as the Steelers coach and Tomlin's early success was often credited to inheriting a playoff-ready team from Cowher.
Cowher's players are long gone and Tomlin has done a remarkable job – especially this season. The Steelers have overcome several injuries on both sides of the ball, yet keep winning. Tomlin deserves much of the credit and should be considered for Coach of the Year. Because of the job Sean McVay has done to turn around the Rams (10-4), Tomlin likely will not win the award, but he should be in the conversation.
ROUND TWO MIGHT GO DIFFERENTLY
Sunday's game went down to the wire as most expected. The Patriots and Steelers might meet again in January, site to be determined, and it would likely again be close. Beating championship-calibre teams twice in the same season is difficult to do. That task is made even more difficult when each team is so well-coached. Tomlin has done a great job with the Steelers and Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the NFL's standard-bearer for championship-level consistency.