PITTSBURGH — All this seemed to be too much, even for a New England Patriots team that always wins big games. The injuries. A second-half deficit. A Pittsburgh Steelers team determined to show it is now the AFC’s best team.
Not yet, they’re not — not after giving Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri a chance to beat them in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots, badly depleted by injuries, withstood the longest scoring pass play against them in 15 years and two turnovers inside the Pittsburgh 10 to rally in the fourth quarter behind Brady, beating the Steelers 23-20 Sunday on Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal with one second remaining.
“They showed us today why they’re the champs,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said.
It’s also why the Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls.
New England, trailing for most of the game, led 20-13 late in the fourth quarter when a pass interference call on Chad Scott on a fourth-and-11 play set up Ben Roethlisberger’s second scoring pass to Hines Ward, a 4-yarder that tied it with 1:21 remaining.
But that was too much time for Brady, the NFL’s best late-in-the-game quarterback, and Vinatieri, its best clutch kicker.
“Our coaches always get us in situations where we can make plays,” said David Givens, who made nine catches for 130 yards. “There always seems to be time for us to come back.”
Brady, shouldering most of the offense, completed his last 12 passes and went 31-of-41 for 372 yards and Corey Dillon, all but absent the week before in a 27-17 loss at Carolina, scored twice on short runs to help end Pittsburgh’s 16-game winning streak. Dillon’s 7-yard run early in the fourth made it 17-13 — New England’s first lead since 7-0 on Dillon’s 4-yard run on its first possession.
The Steelers didn’t help themselves when, early in the second, Antwaan Randle El tried pitching the ball to Hines Ward as he was about to be tackled on a 49-yard gain to the New England 11. Randle El’s errant toss was recovered by the Patriots.
Roethlisberger threw three interceptions. Under a heavy rush, he went 12-of-28 for 216 yards in his first loss in 16 regular-season starts.
Already without three injured cornerbacks, including starter Tyrone Poole, the Patriots lost backup cornerback Duane Starks on the Steelers’ first play from scrimmage, though he returned later. Following an 85-yard Hines Ward TD reception, safety Rodney Harrison and left tackle Matt Light went down with leg injuries.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said nothing when asked about the injuries, which forced the Patriots to patch together a secondary on almost every series and to call plays that kept the pressure off rookie offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur. They gave up two sacks early in the second half before tightening up.
Despite Roethlisberger’s misthrows and incompletions, the Steelers (2-1) led 13-10 early in the fourth after New England twice moved inside the Pittsburgh 10 without scoring.
Linebacker Clark Haggans stripped the ball from Kevin Faulk after a 15-play drive to the Steelers’ 8 early in the second quarter, and Brady was intercepted on a tipped ball late in the first half after New England had a first down at the 3.
“But we kept it close,” Vrabel said. “It’s important for us that you keep it close, because we have a lot of confidence that if we keep it close, we can win it in the end.”
The Steelers’ Jeff Reed, whose team-record streak of 21 consecutive field goals ended when he missed a 52-yarder, hit from 33 and 24 yards. But Vinatieri cut it to 13-10 late in the third quarter with a 48-yarder, and made a 35-yarder in the fourth to stretch it to 20-13.