There’s just something about an AFC Championship Game that brings about its own accelerated pulse rate and adrenaline surge.
Anticipation ran through the crowd and fans standing on the sidelines watching the two teams prepare for supremacy of the AFC. There’s a lot of history between these two teams and watching the young bucks get prepared to have at it is fun, inspiring and exciting. And nobody does a finer job of reminding the players of the great heritage and history of the Pittsburgh Steelers than one Mr. Hines Ward, who was in attendance and ringside for the pregame warmups. Hines was named honorary game captain for the game and to chat with him and say hi is always a pleasure.
* The player introductions of the New England Patriots complete with piped-in background music of Ozzy Ozbourne's “Crazy Train” created a feverish, frenzied atmosphere at Gillette Stadium. That, along with the Jumbotron screening the screaming histrionics of past Patriots greats only enhanced the incredible groundswell of emotions bouncing around in the form of players on both sidelines. Even though Tunch Ilkin and I played in the AFC Championship 32 years ago in Miami, I can still feel a little surge of adrenaline remembering the run-up and the game itself. Yeah baby, I love this!
* When Mike Tomlin came down the sideline pre-kickoff, I remember thinking he could well suit up himself, he looked so game-ready and intense. Le'Veon Bell, Chris Hubbard, Rosie Nix, throw in last-minute hugs between players, players and coaches and all this high-intensity, mixed emotions of ferocity create a volcanic atmosphere that begs for kickoff relief.
* The first Lev Bell carry revealed an inkling of how the Patriots intended to defend Bell and his peek-a-boo running style. Stay upright, give ground grudgingly and create a perimeter to absorb, defend and hold ground. And when the opportunity to stack Bell came, up and tear at his hands and arms, and thusly the ball. Well, LBer Rob Ninkovich looked like he was digging for gold as he yanked and tore at it.
* Javon Hargrave got his first playoff sack off fellow rookie Joe Thuney, the Pats LG. Thuney has balance and footwork problems and I had hopes that Javon could exploit this as he has a natural pass-rushing tendency to work the edge of a man rather than just trying to run down the middle. Javon didn’t disappoint as he drove hard to the inside and clubbed back the other way to virtually throw Thuney like a sack of wheat. Thuney thudded to the ground and Javon dropped Tom Brady for a 10-yard loss.
* Brady was the beneficiary of an excellent job of his offensive line and max-pro RB, who picked up the fire-X game on his 16-yard TD throw to Chris Hogan in the first quarter. The Houston Texans got home on this blitz the week before but the rushers all got bottled up on the right side of the Patriots offensive line and Tom simply slid to his left and looked off the safety. Hogan was wide open.
* I noticed what I thought looked to be a hitch in Bell's git-a-long when he went to the sideline and DeAngelo Williams checked into the game. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw Steelers doctor Jim Bradley standing alongside Bell during the series having conversation that he didn’t want anyone to notice. I began to have that gnawing feeling in my gullet that something was wrong.
* In DeAngelo’s first series he ripped off runs of 1, 15 and 4 followed by a crunching 5-yard TD run, along with a couple pass receptions. And my impression was that if the Patriots were going to try to play soft against Williams, they were going to have to adjust because Williams was not going to slow down, but accelerate into the hole. Interesting it was, to try to see how they would defense DeAngelo.
* In the second quarter, James Harrison lined up on Patriots RT Marcus Cannon. James went up the field, clubbed to the outside shoulder of Cannon and threw an uppercut, coming agonizingly close but no cigar to Brady for a sack. Brady scooted out to safety. This pass rush by James was totally unlike any normal Harrison pass rush I’ve seen this year. I began to suspect that James’ tricep/shoulder injury was inhibiting his normal rip-no-dip pass rush from the right defensive side.
* Tunch had warned earlier in the broadcast to beware that the Patriots would look to resort to some “trickoration” on a team that they were playing for a second time. He was quite the prophetic one as Brady hooked up with Hogan on a flea-flicker that caught Mike Mitchell heading the wrong way for a touchdown.
* The pained expression on Ben Roethlisberger’s face said it all. You can’t leave points on the field, and when Cobi Hamilton dropped a Roethlisberger pass in the end zone you could see it on Ben’s face.
* The expression on Tomlin’s face looked about as painful after the refs decided to go under the hood and review Jesse James’ catch and run for 19 yards. More pained expressions flew about as referee Terry McCaulay announced James’ touchdown would be reversed. And when the Steelers had to settle for a FG, you could feel the subtle overtones of worry break out on faces and in the body language on the sideline. They could not expect to win by threes the way they did in Kansas City. And it felt like everybody in the bench area was thinking the same thing.
* There was a flurry of activity on the sideline that mimicked the flurry of on-field activity in the second half. Brady tried to sneak the Steelers on a third-and-1. Somehow the ball was dislodged, with Brady laying on the back of one of his offensive lineman. The Steelers were wildly gesturing that they had the ball, but the game officials were not signaling anything. Tomlin at one point drew out the red flag, as apparently the officials were saying it wasn’t a fumble. Mike tossed out the red flag, then after a moment or two he picked it back up, only to toss it again moments later. The review confirmed what they called on the field.
* Third-and-7 in the third quarter and Ben threw to James. Patriots safety Patrick Chung literally tackled Jesse prior to the attempt at a catch. I mean it was one of the most obvious pass interference calls you could ever see, and the official right there said incomplete. It was right in front of the Steelers bench and the whole sideline exploded at the obvious infraction, shaking its collective head and pointing fingers, all to no avail.
* Nobody goes harder after a fumbled ball than the fumbler. Having caused a fumble or two in my career, I can attest to this. And that was the case in which Eli Rogers caught a pass, was stripped and then tore after the ball that was recovered by Ninkovich. The feeling that you just let all of your teammates down is an awful feeling that you’ll do just about anything to redeem yourself, including trying to rip the ball out of the hands of the guy who recovered your fumble. Or fish hooking. Or punching at the ball and other tender areas of the body. Or -- never mind. I’m not sure the statute of limitations has run out yet.
* There’s that look again on Ben’s face and it’s not a good one. After the official dropped his hat in the back end of the end zone, and then a flag was dropped, you started to put together the Captain Obvious infraction. Cobi Hamilton had stepped out of bounds and then was the first one to touch it as came back in and caught the pass for a touchdown.
* Early in the fourth quarter, LeGarrette Blount carried from his own 2 to the 10. Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell combined for the stop, but behind the play Lawrence Timmons and Brady looked like they were having a moment, but I couldn’t be sure if it was Brady looking like he wanted to melt LT with a glare or they were just kibitzing. Nothing came from it, but I will tell you this, Brady is the fire in that organization.
* Speaking of having a moment, in between Hamilton’s touchdown catch and the two-point conversion, Antonio Brown and Pats CB Malcolm Butler seemed to be having a good sportsmen moment. They were talking and gesturing a little in a friendly way and I couldn’t help but think of their pizza commercial in which Butler is trailing Brown all over the place.
* At the two-minute timeout, there was no disguising the end result from itself. The players began to grimly hug and say those words that only those guys who have shed blood, sweat and tears together over the course of a season can do. It was the recognition on the outside of what they were feeling on the inside and coming to grips with it. The sincerity of the spoken word shared between men who may not be back to wear the Black and Gold with those who will is obvious. I know it. I have lived it. It’s a surreal moment that can be shared if you have had the privilege to be a part of something so much bigger than just yourself. Believe you me, those moments come far too few, and go far too fast.