For the first time since his return, Tom Brady found some defensive resistance. But it wasn’t enough.
Brady threw two touchdowns, and LeGarrette Blount added a pair of his own, as the New England Patriots earned a 27-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss gave his thoughts on the victory:
Patriots 27, Steelers 16 (final): Hard-fought game in which Patriots made it harder on themselves with drops/turnovers, but pull thru in end
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 23, 2016
The Patriots are 3-0 since Brady’s return from his Deflategate suspension, though this was by far their toughest challenge. After winning their last two games by a combined 38 points and racking up 938 total yards against the Browns and Bengals, the Patriots struggled to find downfield plays and were mostly relegated to checkdowns and short runs.
Brady nonetheless took what the defense gave him, completing 19 of his 26 passes for 222 yards. He found James White underneath in the first quarter and Rob Gronkowski in the third for his two scores. Gronkowski’s touchdown was his 67th of his career, which Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson noted puts him in elite company:
Rob Gronkowski now has as many career TD receptions as Rod Smith, Art Monk and Raymond Berry. That trio averaged 13+ seasons to get there.
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 23, 2016
Brady stretched his interceptionless streak to 101 passes since his return. New England is yet to throw a pick this season and is the only team with that distinction after Sam Bradford threw his first for the Minnesota Vikings earlier Sunday.
Suffice it to say actor Stephen Amell is a fan:
I hope Tom Brady plays football forever.
— Stephen Amell (@StephenAmell) October 23, 2016
Julian Edelman led all Patriots with nine receptions for 60 yards. He consistently found little holes underneath that essentially served as run plays, though Edelman didn’t find much luck making yards after the catch.
Gronkowski was far more successful with big plays, leading the Patriots with 93 yards on his four receptions. It was nearly his third straight 100-yard game after injuries rendered him ineffective for the first quarter of the season.
Blount, the workhorse of the Patriots offense when Brady was out, also got back into the mix in a big way. He had his third 100-yard game of the campaign, finishing with 127 on 24 carries. It’s the first time since Week 3 that Blount had more than 18 attempts. He’d averaged 14.7 attempts over the last three games prior to Sunday.
Ben Volin of the Boston Globe noted we’re headed toward the best season of Blount’s career:
Blount’s 8 rushing TDs are a new career high. And we’re not even halfway done with the season
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) October 23, 2016
Playing its first game without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers offense fared far better than most expected. Landry Jones executed the game plan well enough, throwing for 281 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
To be fair, Jones has Brady beat in one important category:
0 Super Bowl losses to Eli Manning
2 Super Bowl losses to Eli Manning
That’s all you need to know
— Handsome Tweeter (@SportsTalkJoe) October 23, 2016
Like Brady, most of Jones’ completions came underneath. Outside a 51-yard pitch-and-catch to Antonio Brown, Jones was confined to a series of short and intermediate passes. Brown had a game-high 106 yards on seven receptions, assuaging concerns of those who were worried about his post-Roethlisberger production.
He did, however, briefly leave the game in the second half with a hip injury. While the severity of Brown’s injury is unclear, he had a noticeable limp while running around the field after returning. The Steelers also briefly lost Sammie Coates to a hand injury.
With receivers rolling in and out of the game, Le’Veon Bell was the only stalwart in Pittsburgh’s lineup. Bell went over 100 total yards for the fourth straight game, rushing for 81 and adding 68 on a game-high 10 receptions. He’s nonetheless still without a touchdown—an anomalous fact given how much work he gets.
The Steelers, heading into a much-needed bye week, have lost two straight and hold a one-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North. They will hope the week off is enough for Roethlisberger to recover from his knee surgery.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are two games clear in the AFC East and look like the favorite for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They are the only one-loss team remaining in the conference despite playing their first four games with a makeshift offense. With a rematch against the Buffalo Bills coming next Sunday, they can take a definitive step toward clinching the division at the season’s halfway point with a win.
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.