Third Time Wasn’t the Charm

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Mike Tomlin drops to 2-1 in AFC Championships after losing to the Patriots 36-17 in the ’16 AFC title game.

Steeler Nation has seen this horror film before. It’s a now a trilogy. And each one ends the same. Disappointing and embarrassing.

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots thwarted another Pittsburgh Steelers trip to the Super Bowl 36-17.

The 4-time Super Bowl Champion QB carved the Black and Yellow defense for a postseason career high and franchise record 384 yards with 3 touchdowns. Chris Hogan ran free in the Steelers secondary to score 2 touchdowns while setting a Patriots franchise postseason record 180 receiving yards on 9 receptions. Julian Edelman also got loose for 118 yards on 8 catches, one going for a touchdown. The 298 combined receiving yards is the most by a duo in conference championship history.

The Pittsburgh defense that led the way to victory in many games during the 10-game winning streak going back to week 11 was no match for Brady’s offense. Coming into the game New England averaged 386.2 total yards per game. They went for 431 in the AFC title game. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler went back to a game plan that he implored at the beginning of the season; Bend, but don’t break. Those type of calls get you burnt. All season I’ve said that an elite quarterback would slice and dice that plan. Sunday night was that night.

Critics of Mike Tomlin, ahem… Terry Bradshaw, will use this game as an example of him not being an elite or a great coach because the lack of adjustments made.

From my vantage point the only adjustment they could’ve made would’ve been to play ball control offense, and that option went out the window in the first quarter when Le’Veon Bell injured his groin after only 6 carries for 20 yards. Had Bell been available, and been able to do even half of what he did in the Wild Card and Divisional rounds, that could’ve done the trick. The Steelers were 9-0 this season when he ran for 90+ yards. That’s because he eats clock, while also wearing down defenses, but mostly because it would’ve kept Brady on the sideline. He was also missed in the passing game, as New England was able to double team Antonio Brown who had a quiet 7 catches for 77 yards.

Still, Bell doesn’t play defense and that’s where this team was exposed once again like they were during their mid-season 4-game losing streak from weeks 6 thru 10.

Offensively, Ben Roethlisberger came to play going 31 of 47 for 314 yards with a touchdown and interception. But not many others with him. At one point in the first half, he completed a career high 13 consecutive completions. This was his moment to get payback on #12 and “The hoody” for the loss he suffered as a rookie 12 seasons ago, and he looked poised to take advantage of it. With Brown double teamed, Eli Rodgers (7 catches for 66 yards) and Jesse James (5 catches for 48 yards) made plays to keep drives moving. But key drops by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton sucked the life out of promising drives.

The key turning point was Pittsburgh’s last drive of the first half. The 19-yard touchdown catch by James that would’ve brought the score to 12-17 was reversed when replay showed he was down at the one yard line, was followed by three unsuccessful plays that yielded negative 4 yards before Chris Boswell came in on 4th down to make a 23-yard field goal to bring the score to 9-17.

Had they got the touchdown and headed into halftime 13-17 after the extra point or 14-17 if they went for a 2-point conversion, with them getting the ball first to start the second half it would’ve been a different game. Instead they went three-and-out on their first second half possession, then proceeded to give up 19 unanswered points, and it was pretty much a coronation for New England as they broke a tie with the Steelers for most AFC title championship in NFL history with 9.

I honestly didn’t expect this. I thought this was the one. The one win to wipe away the pain from losing in 2004 and 2001 at Heinz Field. This one will be tough to digest. The last 9 weeks gave Steelers fans a sense of hope the Lombardi number seven was within reach. Tonight showed this team is probably a year or two away. I’ll have more on that later this week, because my final takeaway from this season is, 2016 may have been the dawn of a new Steelers dynasty.

When you’re an organization playing for World titles it’s hard to accept a 13-6 finish. But when you look at where this team was in mid-October, if you told me this would be the final result, I would’ve taken it after I laughed at you.

Next up, the offseason.

EXTRA POINTS

  • Sunday was the 11-year anniversary of the Steelers 2005 AFC Championship victory over the Denver Broncos.
  • Ben Roethlisberger started his 20th career postseason game, passing Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount and Franco Harris for the franchise record by an individual player. He also passed Bradshaw for most 300+ yard passing games in franchise postseason history.
  • On his third carry of the night, Le’Veon Bell passed Franco Harris (343) for most rushing yards in a postseason. He now has 357 yards in his first three playoff games.
  • This was the first playoff game since 2006 with no penalties in the first half.
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