After winning the biggest game of their season the Steelers (6-2) can put themselves in the drivers’ seat in the AFC if they can beat the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field Sunday night and the Cincinnati Bengals the next week going into their bye week.
The Steelers defense was great and the offense once again played just good enough to win as they dominated the New England Patriots (5-2) in every aspect of the game except the score 25-17, to put them atop the AFC with a 6-2 record, a half game ahead of the Ravens (5-2), and Bengals (5-2). The victory also gives them the tie-breaker over the Patriots in the playoffs, if they have the same record.
|IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE—Wide receiver Antonio Brown is tackled after a reception. Brown had his best game of the season filling in for the injured Hines Ward with 9 catches for 67 yards. (Courier Photos/John Pablo Duran)
It appeared that the Ravens were going to bow out of the race after they spotted the Arizona Cardinals a 21 point lead before they came storming back in the second half to pull out a 30-27 victory. And the young Bengals continued to look impressive with a 34-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Once again the Steelers offense put up huge stats in the first half with Ben Roethlisberger going 23 of 32 for 231 yards highlighted by the first drive in which they marched down the field with Heath Miller catching 4 passes for 55 yards leading to a Mewelde Moore touchdown. But despite dominating the half, they only had a 17-10 lead. Antonio Brown scored his first receiving touchdown at the end of the half with a beautiful 7 yard catch.
The second half saw the Steelers march up and down the field but they were unable to punch the ball into the end zone against the worst defense in the NFL. They scored only 6 points , but at least they kept the ball away from Brady using the West Coast offense to control the ball with short passes instead of throwing the ball downfield. But as usual they bogged down inside the 10 yard line settling for field goals three times instead of touchdowns. Brown had his best game of the season filling in for the injured Hines Ward with 9 catches for 67 yards. All the receivers had impressive numbers; Mike Wallace 7 catches for 70, Heath Miller 7 for 85 and Emmanual Sanders 5 for 70. After a hot start, they stopped going to Miller for some reason, even in the end zone where his height should have been a big advantage. Roethlisberger finished the game with his best stats of the season going 36 of 50 for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have a great game but kept the defense honest with 70 yards on 13 carries.
The defense was great. Going up against the best offense in the AFC, they held the best quarterback in the AFC in check all night, with the secondary playing the greatest game of their careers. Ike Taylor led the way holding Wes Welker to just 39 yards on 6 catches. Welker came into the game leading the league in receptions on what may still be a record pace. But Taylor wasn’t the only bright spot. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau changed his defense against the Patriots by challenging his backs to cover every receiver man to man, thus not giving Brady anyone to throw to. And they accepted the challenge by blanketing the receivers, forcing Brady to hold the ball longer which led to him being forced out of the pocket and either being sacked or throwing an incomplete pass. He had his worst game of the season going 24 of 35 for 198 yards.
However, the greatest defense may have been the offense marching up and down the field keeping Brady on the sidelines. You can’t do anything with the ball if you don’t have the ball, and the Steelers were great from the 20 yard to the 10, but couldn’t punch the ball in. But between the ball control and the excellent play of the defense the Patriots only scored 7 points in the second half.
Coach Mike Tomlin on the game, after the game: “Boy that was a great win for us, at home, in front of our fans, versus a very good football team. We played good, fundamental football today, and that’s the recipe. We were where we were supposed to be, doing what we were supposed to do, for the most part in all three phases. It was enough to get a victory. We will enjoy it today. Then we will move forward.”
“We needed to control the ball and keep their offense off the field, which made controlling it difficult. We tried to control it with the pass a little bit. We were able to do that with Ben. He threw some completions early, and we were able to control that in that fashion. That was necessary for us to be good and be on schedule with the chains, like we were.”
On the performance of the defensive backs: “They’ve done a nice job all year. They were tested tonight, and they passed the test. But there are some pretty big tests that lie ahead for that group. We have some young guys that aren’t afraid to compete. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. I can’t say enough about the young guys that get up in people’s faces and challenge people, and play to win, which is good.”
The Cardinals jumped all over the Ravens in the first half. So much so that it appeared the Ravens were about to suffer their second straight blowout after the Jacksonville Jaguars beat them last week. But as bad as quarterback Joe Flacco looked in the first half, he looked just as impressive in the second half, especially throwing to former Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, 8 receptions for 145 yards. Much like the Steelers, the Ravens defense took over in the second half and completely shut the Cardinals down, giving the offense excellent field position every time they touched the ball.
Billy Cundiff kicked a 25-yard field goal as time expired, Ray Rice scored a career-high three touchdowns and the Ravens rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat the Cardinals.
The Bengals kept pace with the Steelers and Ravens while the Cleveland Browns (3-4) fell further behind after losing to the San Francisco 49ers 20-10.