The New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 on Sunday. With the win, the Patriots clinched the AFC East for the ninth straight season. This is a win that will be hotly debated, especially if the Patriots home field advantage in the playoffs results in another Pittsburgh loss. Ben Roethlisberger‘s game-winning touchdown pass to Jesse James was reversed after review, and reactions to the ruling are contentious. After the touchdown was called back, Duron Harmon made a key interception in the end zone to lock the game up for the Patriots. Here are the Week 15 New England Patriots Takeaways.
Week 15 New England Patriots Takeaways
Gronkowski’s Return Made All the Difference
Last week, Tom Brady‘s offense went zero for 11 on third downs in a loss to the Miami Dolphins. This week, although not stellar, the Patriots converted three of nine third downs. The return of Rob Gronkowski from his one-game suspension reinvigorated a New England offense that played much more like Miami than Miami did last week. Ryan Allen did his fair share of work last week, punting seven times for the Patriots. The offense’s reestablished efficiency brought Allen out only twice in Pittsburgh in week 15.
Gronkowski was stellar in today’s contest. Without missing a beat, he leaped back to the top receiving position. The veteran tight end saw a team-high nine catches on 13 targets. He more than doubled the production of the second-most prolific receiver with 168 yards. Brandin Cooks‘ 60 yards on four receptions paled in comparison.
Beyond his personal production, Gronkowski’s presence opened up the ground game for New England. The big tight end’s ability to draw defenses allowed Dion Lewis to produce 67 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Without Gronkowski on the field last week, the Miami defense dialed in on Lewis, holding him to only 17 yards on five carries.
The Ground Game Must Change
Rex Burkhead was at it again this week, scoring the Patriots first touchdown of the game. The former Cincinnati Bengal has at least one touchdown in each of his last four starts. Unfortunately, Burkhead left the game during the Patriots first drive of the second half with a knee injury. He did not return during the contest. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported after the game that although Burkhead may be out for a little while, it is not the season-ending ACL tear that has claimed so many star players this year.
Initial tests showed Patriots’ RB Rex Burkhead did not tear his ACL, per league source. He could miss a little time, but knee injury initially not believed to be of the major variety.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 18, 2017
Burkhead and Lewis have been a two-headed monster in the backfield for New England. With Burkhead sidelined for an indefinite amount of time, the door is reopened for Mike Gillislee. Gillislee has been a healthy scratch week after week for the Patriots.
The AFC Belongs to the Patriots
This game happened to be the deciding contest for the top seed in the AFC. Although there are still two weeks left in the season, it’s more than likely that both teams win out. The Patriots play the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets in Foxborough to end the season. The Pittsburgh face similarly anemic programs in the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns. In the likely event that both teams end the regular season with the same record, this game breaks the tie in favor of New England.
The Steelers are perennial contenders and should have no trouble reaching the AFC Championship game again this year. Should the Patriots face off against the Steelers in a rematch for the AFC, the Patriots will have the added advantage of the Foxborough faithful to support as a result of this game. Retaining the top seed would also provide the Patriots with a first-round bye in the playoffs. Injuries have been a huge detriment to the team, and an extra week of rest would allow the Patriots to rehabilitate key players on both sides of the ball, such as Chris Hogan, Alan Branch, and Kyle Van Noy.
This was a crucial moment for the Patriots, as the chorus of doubts re-surged after last week’s loss. Even with the controversial call that gave the Patriots the opportunity to win the game, New England proved that it still has what it takes to compete with the top teams in the AFC.
The Patriots will return home to take on the Bills in week 16.