Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Sean Davis (28) makes a shoestring tackle on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) in the fourth quarter of the Patriots 27-24 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on December 17, 2017. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Individual performances rarely overshadow team accomplishments in New England.
Of course, individual performances rarely lead quite as directly to team accomplishments as was the case Sunday evening in Pittsburgh when Rob Gronkowski put the Patriots on his back to will New England to the exciting, controversial 27-24 victory over the Steelers.
It was a critical performance in a critical win to give head coach Bill Belichick's team the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the postseason on another potential Super Bowl run.
Gronkowski caught nine passes for 168 yards, hauling in seven of the Patriots' 10 longest plays of the day. He was at his best with the game on the line, catching three straight balls totaling 69 yards to move New England from its own 23 into position for Dion Lewis' go-ahead, 8-yard touchdown in the final two minutes.
Gronkowski then abused Steelers safety Sean Davis for a two-point conversion, which meant Pittsburgh couldn't win on a field goal in its ensuing attempted comeback effort.
By once again taking care of business against Mike Tomlin's team, New England clinched its ninth straight AFC East title and took a key step toward trying to defend its Super Bowl title.
But from Tom Brady to Belichick, all those in the celebratory visitors locker room at Heinz Field agreed that Gronkowski was the story, coming back from his one-game suspension for his dirty hit on Tre'Davious White in the Week 13 game in Buffalo to dominate the day.
Forget Antonio Brown leaving with a calf injury. Forget the controversial replay overturning a would-be Jesse James game-winning score for Pittsburgh. Forget Ben Roethlisberger's ill-advised fake spike and subsequent interception at the goal line with less than 10 seconds to play in a three-point game.
It was Gronk's day.
"Gronk GOAT! Gronk GOAT!" Patriots backup tight end Dwayne Allen exclaimed for all to hear in the postgame locker room. "It was one of the greatest tight end performances I've ever seen, where he totally put the team on his back. He's 6-7 and he took it off his toes! He took it off his toes! You're not supposed to do that at 6-7. He's the GOAT."
Allen was referring to a shoe-string catch that Gronkowski made for a 17-yard reception that set up the game-winning score.
According to Pro Football Focus' grading system, Gronkowski -- who also happened to have a huge block on Lewis' touchdown run -- had a perfect 99.9 grade for the game, just the 14th time a player has reached that number since the site's inception in 2006.
"I have so much trust in him," Brady said. "It may look like it's 50-50, but it might be 95-5. You try and develop that chemistry over time, and Gronk's earned it."
A day later, after breaking down film of the key win's key plays, Belichick reiterated something he said in the immediacy of the victory in Pittsburgh -- Gronkowski is really open even when he's not.
Belichick emphasized that point discussing that 17-yard catch to set up the touchdown, his final reception of the day.
"His catch radius is outstanding. His hands and his catch radius are two of the things that make him so difficult to cover that even when a defender is on him and he can be draped all over him, there's some place where the ball can be located that Rob can get it and the defender can't," Belichick said. "Tom does a good job of putting it there and Rob does a good job of catching it."
With help from endless others in some truly impressive situational football, Brady and Gronkowski led the Patriots to yet another victory.
New England will always be about team accomplishments under Belichick, but every once in a while all involved note the contributions of someone like Gronkowski, who leads the team with 64 catches for 1,071 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing two games.
"He was doing it himself," Brady said of Gronkowski's dominant finish in Pittsburgh, before getting back to a more traditional, focused view of things. "He played a hell of a game. That guy fights his ass off every day and I'm happy for him and happy for our team. Now we have to go take care of business next week at home."
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B - If only Tom Brady passes to Rob Gronkowski were tabulated this would be an A-plus. The tight end dominated and then won the game with nine catches for 168 yards, including three straight for 69 yards to set up the game-winning score as well as the ensuing two-point conversion. Overall, Brady completed 22 of 35 passes for 298 yards with one score and one ugly third-quarter interception for an overall 87.6 rating. Though he spread the ball to nine different targets, Brady was adversely affected by the pressure from Pittsburgh, including two sacks and six QB hits.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus - Dion Lewis bounced back from a bad week as the lead back picked up 67 yards on his 13 attempts (5.2) average, including what ended up the game-winning score on an 8-yard run. Rex Burkhead had just four carries for 12 yards before leaving with a knee injury, but he did continue to serve as the goal-line finisher with a 1-yard score to open the game's scoring in the first quarter.
--PASS DEFENSE: B-minus - New England's pass defense was far from perfect allowing Ben Roethlisberger to complete 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards and a 110.6 passer rating, even with top target Antonio Brown leaving early to a calf injury. The production included JuJu Smith-Schuster catching all six passes thrown his way, notably a 69-yard catch-and-run that put Pittsburgh in position to possibly tie the game at the gun. But, Eric Rowe's pass deflection and Duron Harmon's resulting interception allowed the Patriots to steal the win without playing particularly well, allowing 10 of 16 third-down conversions.
--RUSH DEFENSE: D - The Patriots run defense is banged up and undermanned and it showed by allowing Le'Veon Bell to pick up 117 yards and a touchdown on his 24 attempts for a 4.7 average. Overall, Pittsburgh ran it 31 times for 143 yards as the Patriots continued to give up the edges too easily and miss too many tackles in the front.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - While Stephen Gostkowski hit his field goals from 32 and 46 yards, a bad Joe Cardona snap and suspect Ryan Allen hold led to a missed extra point in the third quarter that kept New England from tying the game and could have been costly. Neither team was able to get much done in the return game. Allen did have a 47-yard net on his two punts, including one downed at the Steelers 3.
--COACHING: B - While Mike Tomlin's team was seemingly overwhelmed in the closing seconds, Bill Belichick's defense reacted well to a fake spike and throw into the end zone for a game-clinching interception. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took what the defense gave him, feeding Gronkowski as Pittsburgh had no answer for the tight end. Defensively, Matt Patricia did his best to scheme up a way to try to slow the Steelers run and find a pass rush from his undermanned front. It was good enough to win.