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Patriots steal AFC's top seed from Steelers with a little help from the catch rule

The Steelers appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds, but the NFL’s catch rule said otherwise.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The New England Patriots took a commanding lead in the AFC by pulling off an astounding comeback and surviving what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-24, in Week 15.

New England matched Pittsburgh’s 11-3 record with the win, but earned the tiebreaker with the head-to-head victory and clinched the AFC East as well.

Here’s how the wild finish went down that ended with the Patriots on top once again:

The Steelers lost Antonio Brown early

Some feel Brown deserves to be in the MVP race and a big game against the Patriots may have been enough to make him the favorite for the award. Instead he caught just two passes for 24 yards before suffering a calf injury in the end zone that ended his day.

The X-rays reportedly came back negative, but Brown went to a hospital for further evaluation.

Pittsburgh did fine offensively in his absence, but the veteran receiver has been as clutch this season as any player in the league and wasn’t available when the Steelers needed a game-clinching play to put the Patriots away late.

Le’Veon Bell found success on the ground

Pittsburgh was much more balanced offensively than New England thanks mostly to the play of Bell, who finished with 117 yards on 24 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown.

His huge day on the ground was complemented by five receptions for 48 yards and was the biggest reason why Pittsburgh was able to win the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes.

That contributed to the 24-16 hole the Patriots had to climb from at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Rob Gronkowski was unstoppable

The Patriots tight end has a history of toasting the Steelers:

But his second half against the Steelers was as good as it gets. He finished with nine receptions for 168 yards — a career high — that included receptions of 26, 26, and 17 yards on the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of the game.

He punctuated it with a two-point conversion that gave the Patriots a 27-24 lead with less than a minute left.

JuJu Smith-Schuster appeared to save the day for the Steelers

Pittsburgh needed a drive to go 79 yards in 52 seconds to win, or at least get close enough for a game-tying field goal. Smith-Schuster got most of that at once with a 69-yard gain on the first play, escaping up the left sideline and cutting across the field to get in the red zone.

The play left the Steelers on the 10-yard line.

The NFL catch rule cost the Steelers a touchdown

Pittsburgh appeared to take the lead back with a 10-yard pass to Jesse James that he extended across the goal line. However, officials ruled the play incomplete.

According to NFL rules, a player who is going to the ground during the process of making a catch must control the ball through the fall. Officials decided that James lost control upon impact with the ground, nullifying the score.

New England sealed it with a tip drill interception

After a short pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey went for just three yards and ended in bounds, the Steelers hurried to the line of scrimmage. But instead of spiking, Roethlisberger faked and then attempted to throw to Eli Rogers in the middle of the field.

The ball bounced off the receiver and was intercepted in the end zone to end the game.

The Patriots kneeled out the final seconds on the next play to a chorus of boos from Pittsburgh fans.

For now, both New England and Pittsburgh are set to have first-round byes and host playoff games in the AFC Divisional Round in January. The Jacksonville Jaguars are a game behind both teams and own the tiebreakers, so neither can afford to slip up.

But it’s the Patriots that came out on top and it looks like the road to the Super Bowl will go through Gillette Stadium once again.

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