Patriots Lucky AND Good

December 19, 2017

What is it about these New England Patriots?

They’re a great team, a dynastic franchise. The best in the NFL for a decade and a half.

But my word, they are also very, very lucky. Why fortune has chosen to smile down upon a franchise that only occasionally needs the intervention is hard to fathom.

We know, of course, how lucky the Pats were in the Super Bowl a few years back when Seattle coach Pete Carroll tried to get cute at the end and Malcolm Butler went from total unknown to household name in the space of three seconds.

And in last year’s Super Bowl, trailing the Falcons by the now-famous score of 28-3 the Patriots needed everything -- and I mean everything -- to break their way in the fourth quarter. With a combination of tenacity and more horrendous meltdown play-calling, Tom Brady & Co. were able to pull another rabbit out of their hat.

Which brings us to Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

In the final few minutes of the contest, a lot of things had to go right.

And they did.

* First, the Steelers, leading 24-19 nearing the two-minute warning, go three-and-out for first time all day when one first down would have probably been enough to run out the clock.

* Next, Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis drops an interception that hit him in the hands and would definitely have sealed it.

* Then, the Steelers let Rob Gronkowski roam free three straight times on the same play -- a crossing route from left to right, for 69 total yards, to march New England down the field for a TD you knew was coming.

And of course the two-point conversion you knew was coming (because it’s the Patriots), making it a three-point game at 27-24 New England.

The conversion pass was vital as it turned out because the Steelers came back with a last-minute Brady-like drive of their own, aided by some porous Patriot defense.

It was first-and-goal at the 10. At which point the game came down to three plays:

* First, tight end Jesse James caught an apparent touchdown pass that was ruled incomplete upon review because the ground jarred it loose from his hands. This is a play that is called a TD as often as it isn’t. He had control when he broke the plane. Could have gone either way. Even Patriots radio man Scott Zolak, an avowed homer, said it should have been ruled a touchdown.

* Next, after a completed pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Butler managed to make the tackle just before the receiver got out of bounds to keep the clock running.

* Then the Steelers -- without a timeout -- were forced into a chaotic third-down play where Ben Roethlisberger faked a spike and tried to force a pass over the middle into what looked like triple-coverage.

Wrong move, Ben. The ball was deflected by Eric Rowe and intercepted by Duran Harmon, who unlike Davis did not drop this one.

CBS color man Tony Romo groaned even as the ball was in the air. Roethlisberger had thrown into an area where nearly every Patriot defender stood. Game over. The Patriots go from a probable third seed in the playoffs with no first-round bye and no home field guarantee to a probable No. 1 seed and all it entails.

Here’s Bill Belichick on his Monday conference call commenting on the wild finish:

“There were so many big plays in that game as you go back through the fourth quarter and really every play is a huge play. The difference in any of those plays in the last seven, eight minutes could have affected the outcome of the game.

“That just to me showed how competitive the game was an how critical every single little thing is -- each play, each player, each call, each situation. But it was a great football game. We were fortunate to make one play more than they did to win it ... and I think the message for us is that every play’s important and every situation’s important.”

Dave Pevear, who covers the Pats for us, wrote a few weeks back how opposing teams always manage to do dumb things that play right into the Patriots’ hands.

We didn’t think the Steelers were a dumb team, but they may have proven us wrong.

Dennis Whitton’s email is dwhitton@lowellsun.com .