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Four Downs: The Patriots Path is Set

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The much-anticipated showdown between the two best teams in the AFC surely didn’t disappoint. The Patriots came into Heinz field facing the prospect of falling to the third overall seed in the conference by virtue of the Jaguars winning earlier in the day. After Tom Brady led the Patriots down the field late to take the lead, the Steelers seemed to respond. Then chaos ensued.

What looked like a game-clinching touchdown for the Steelers was overturned and shortly thereafter, Ben Roethlisberger was completing a pass to Duron Harmon in the end zone. Game, Patriots. The win all but guarantees the Patriots will have home-field throughout the playoffs. With the final two games of the season at home, the Patriots could be looking at six straight weeks in Foxborough.

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Tom Brady likely secured his third MVP

It wasn’t his best performance of the season but when the Patriots needed him to be great, he delivered. A poor throw leading to an interception threatened to derail Brady. However, on the final drive, Brady helped march the Patriots down the field to set up the go-ahead score. He then connected with Rob Gronkowski in the corner of the end zone for a crucial two-point conversion. For the game, he was 22-of-35 for 289 yards and a touchdown.

On the season, Brady has now thrown 28 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. His 289 yards against the Steelers put him over the 4,000 yard mark for the ninth time in his career. Despite the changing cast of skill players, Gronk sat for the Dolphins game and Hogan missed the game against the Steelers, Brady continues to lead the league in passing and has the Patriots poised for home-field throughout the AFC playoffs.

Third down woes need to be corrected

Last week, the Patriots failed to convert a third down on offense. Something unheard of during the Brady-Belichick era. Against the Steelers, the troubles continued. They converted on just 3-of-9 third-down attempts. In addition, they allowed the Steelers to convert on 10-of-14 attempts. The staple of this Patriots team is the ability to get off the field on defense and keep drives moving on offense. Lately, they are not doing either very well.

In fact, the Patriots haven’t converted more than 50 percent of their third-down attempts since early in the year. The closest they came was when they went 5-for-10 against the Raiders in Mexico City. Granted, the Patriots have lost only one game in that stretch, however, in the playoffs, all that needs to happen is to lose one game. The Patriots have to be more efficient in the playoffs and start converting third-down conversions more consistently. The Patriots have a pair of home divisional games to right the ship.

Steelers have no answer for Rob Gronkowski

When it came to stopping Rob Gronkowski, the Steelers had no answer. Returning from a one-game suspension, Gronkowski was unstoppable at times. He racked up 168 on nine catches. His final catch was a two-point conversion that gave the Patriots a 27-24 lead in the final minute of the game. Leading up to that conversion, the Brady to Gronk connection took over. On the final drive, Brady and Gronk hooked up three times for 69 yards, culminating in the two-point conversion catch.

Absent from last season’s AFC Championship, Gronkowski quickly reminded the Steelers how dominant he can be. The Steelers altered coverages on Gronkowski throughout the game but to no avail. When the Steelers were in tight man-to-man coverage, they were most effective, however, they could not keep it up the entire game. If the Steelers and Patriots square off again in the playoffs, the Steelers will have to do a better job of slowing down Gronk. Sounds obvious but it is easier said than done. As it stands, it doesn’t look like the Steelers have enough to slow down Gronkowski.

Rex Burkhead injury could be costly

Lost in the thrilling conclusion of Sunday’s game is the injury to Mr. Touchdown, Rex Burkhead. Early reports out of Foxborough are that Burkhead avoided an ACL tear. However, if he were to miss any extended period of time it could prove costly for the Patriots. In the three games prior to the Steelers bout, Burkhead hit paydirt five times. Four times on the ground and once in the air.

Before the injury, Burkhead was continuing the trend as he scored the Patriots first touchdown of the game. He has been a focal point of the Patriots offense the past few weeks and will need to continue that role throughout the Patriots playoff run. Hopefully, the early prognosis of a minor injury is accurate and Burkhead misses just the remainder of the regular season.

– Ian Glendon is the Editor-In-Chief of Full Press Coverage and the AFC East Division Editor. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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