There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday. With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19. As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.
Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster. As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose. Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.
And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.
In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees. A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.
Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James. The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.
It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team. In the end, though, it would prove fruitless. While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.
On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.
But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.
How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain. After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.
He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One. It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating. There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.
The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal. Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire. He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him. He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to. He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy. Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.
Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards. And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season). As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.
I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid. I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title. There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.
It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove. I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.
But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.
And in Jacksonville, Too
The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang. It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl. The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.
The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida. Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.
On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth. That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half. As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.
Of course, it would not end like that.
A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10. Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer. When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.
But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.
Now there was 7:48 left in the game. Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line. Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern. Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field.
Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.
In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him. That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab. These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.
Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out. Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover. Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.
It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.
Who is BlakeBorltes?
The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles. The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon. He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing. Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns. His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.
In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes. In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots. That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run. That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him. That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.
In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville. It is, of course, still Blake Bortles. But maybe a new Blake Bortles. Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.
Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles. Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.
And in Tampa Bay
With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit. Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.
Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago. And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.
His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception. This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating. Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return. Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.
Ready for Week Three
As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.
There is, of course, a long way to go.