American Football Expert & Columnist
NFL Week 15: Pick Six: Patriots and Steelers serve up Sunday classic
Last Updated: 18/12/17 1:59pm
Sunday's Week 15 contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots was being billed as the game of the season heading into the weekend.
After a thrilling evening in the Sky Sports studios, the Steelers and Patriots lived up to the hype and delivered a modern-day classic.
New England's stunning 27-24 win could be the subject of an entire column. For now, it leads my six headlines from Sunday's vital NFL action...
The Patriot Way
There is so much I could write about when it comes to New England's victory over Pittsburgh. I could talk about the serious calf injury suffered by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. I could talk about the late-game heroics of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski or I could explore the notion that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin got too greedy on the final play of note in the contest, going for the TD rather than the game-tying field goal.
Let's focus on that Ben Roethlisberger pass into the endzone because it highlights how well-coached and prepared the Patriots are week in and week out. Jealous fans of other teams sometimes label the Pats as lucky, but good teams make their own luck.
There is always a Patriots player ready to answer when his name is called and it doesn't always turn out to be a superstar. On this occasion, it was Eric Rowe who broke on the ball perfectly to knock it into the path of Duron Harmon for the game-winning interception. It was technically-perfect execution from Rowe at a time when confusion could easily have reigned supreme on New England's defense.
Mixed messages out of Pittsburgh
My initial reaction as the Steelers lined up to fake the spike and throw into the endzone was, 'this is gutsy, but you have one shot and can always come back to the field goal'. My second thought was, make sure this is a safe throw, Ben'.
Of course, it wasn't. It was a dangerous and ill-advised throw in the direction of Eli Rogers and the crowd of defenders in the middle of the field, led by the aforementioned Rowe, and somehow saw the ball end up with the Patriots, along with the number one seed in the AFC playoff race… for now.
After the game it emerged that Big Ben, who clearly wasn't thinking clearly on his final throw, had wanted to spike the ball to give the Steelers time to gather their thoughts and, most likely, kick themselves into overtime with a short field goal. But head coach Mike Tomlin over-ruled that decision and instructed his quarterback to throw into the endzone for the win.
We can praise Tomlin for being aggressive, for sure, but we could also argue that hurrying his quarterback into that situation led to the poor throw and a devastating loss for Pittsburgh. Those are questions the coach is going to be forced to deal with this week.
Don't ignore the Jags
As soon as that classic between the Patriots and Steelers finished at Heinz Field, our thoughts turned to a potential re-match in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 21. Such thoughts do a dis-service to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007 on Sunday night.
The Jags were dominant 45-7 winners over the Houston Texans and their offense is beginning to catch up with a beastly defense at exactly the right time of the year. The Jags put up 464 yards of total offence and quarterback Blake Bortles is rounding into top form.
The oft-criticised Bortles threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns and has now gone three straight games without throwing an interception. When you couple that outstanding offensive production with a confident and aggressive defense that plays with a swagger, the Jags might yet spoil any hopes of a Patriots-Steelers re-match.
Changing of the guard in NFC West
The Los Angeles Rams marched into Seattle last night, pounded the Seahawks into submission and initiated a full-on changing of the guard in the NFC West.
The Rams - led beautifully once again by Coach of the Year favourite Sean McVay - were never in trouble as they romped to a 42-7 win behind 180 total yards and four touchdowns from running back Todd Gurley. The defense was also on top form, sacking Russell Wilson seven times in one of the most brutal beatdowns of the Seahawks in front of their own fans in living memory.
The Rams' offense is the story of the season, for me, as they topped 40 points in a game for the fourth time this term. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley have been revitalised by McVay, who was screaming at his players to pile it on and to keep playing at a high level even when they were leading by 40 in Seattle. I wouldn't fancy facing the Rams in the postseason as they are now one of the very best in the entire NFL.
Vikings take the North
In yet another dominant display by Mike Zimmer's men, the Minnesota Vikings clinched the NFC North division with a 34-7 beat-down of the Cincinnati Bengals.
It proved to be an emotional night for Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as he jogged on the field to take his first snap in 707 days. But having fully recovered from a devastating knee injury, Teddy knows this team firmly belongs to starting QB Case Keenum.
The former back-up is now a fully-fledged NFL star and there is no shifting him from the starting job at least for the remainder of this season. Keenum completed 20 of 23 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the one-sided win. And on third down, which is supposed to be the toughest down for an NFL passer, Keenum went nine of nine for 133 yards against the Bengals.
Jimmy G leads 49ers revival
This final offering has no bearing on the frantic NFL playoff race, but it does offer hope for the future to long-suffering fans of the San Francisco 49ers. Under the guidance of new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers have now won three in a row.
Jimmy G was outstanding in Sunday's 25-23 win over Tennessee, throwing for 381 yards and one touchdown. In a fourth quarter where the game very much hung in the balance, Garoppolo completed 11 of 14 passes for 180 yards and looked a lot like a guy who he used to back-up wearing number 12 in New England.
It is now surely just a matter of time before the Niners sign him to a long-term contract and begin the full rebuild around a very promising-looking passer.