PITTSBURGH -- The New England Patriots’ offense remains a work in progress, but the way Sunday’s 17-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers ended could be a springboard for the unit to forge its sought-after identity.
The offense took over with 6:33 remaining and ran out the clock, pounding the Steelers into submission.
It took premium toughness -- both physical and mental -- as Acrisure Stadium rocked and the Steelers’ signature song “Renegade” blared deep in the fourth quarter.
“That’s part of the winning formula. You want to finish with the ball,” said Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor, who delivered a 44-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter.
“If you look at us last year, four-minute drives weren’t in our favor. We won the four-minute drive [on Sunday], end of the game, milking the clock, being in victory formation. That’s important. Most championship teams see a lot of those, because they win the right way.”
Whether the Patriots can ultimately become a championship team -- which is a high bar to clear, but it has become the standard after a dynastic two-decade run -- seems a long way away. But no team is a finished product after the second week of the season, and perhaps punishing the Steelers down the stretch can be a catalyst to elevate the Patriots to that level.
It came on the same day that the Baltimore Ravens blew a 35-14 fourth-quarter lead to the Miami Dolphins in a loss and the Cleveland Browns let a 30-17 fourth-quarter lead slip away in a loss to the New York Jets -- reminders of how challenging it can be to close out games.
“It was great to be able to hang on to the ball at the end there. Our backs ran hard, and our line gave them some space to run,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “You always want to end up kneeling the ball. That’s the best way to win.”
The Patriots (1-1) -- led by running backs Damien Harris (15 carries, 71 yards, one TD) and Rhamondre Stevenson (nine carries, 47 yards) and a much-maligned line of Trent Brown, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn -- now bring that grind-it-out approach into next Sunday’s home opener against the 1-1 Ravens.
Harris had hobbled off after his final run but said with a smile following the game: “I’m fine, dawg! Look at me. I’m fine!”
Hard-charging running by Harris and Stevenson was critical in the final 6:33, while quarterback Mac Jones (21-of-35 for 252 yards, one TD, one INT) delivered a clutch 11-yard pass to Lil’Jordan Humphrey on second-and-13 then scrambled on third-and-short for the team’s first down on the final march.
“The teams that win in the NFL do that -- close out a game,” said Jones, who was credited by Steelers linebacker Malik Reed for changing plays on the final drive to run in areas where Pittsburgh was more vulnerable.
As Harris added, “It’s definitely a step in the right direction. Obviously, we’re still not where we want to be. We have a long time before we get there. But closing out the game like that is a huge confidence booster. It’s another step we can take going into next week, with another tough opponent, in continuing to become the team we want to be.”
The strong finish ensured the Patriots didn’t drop to 0-2 for the first time since 2001, which is the longest active streak in the NFL of avoiding two straight losses to open the season.
It has some players looking ahead with hope after scoring just seven points in Week 1.
“I hope this game is a steppingstone towards where we’re headed,” Agholor said. “I don’t want this to be, ‘This is our identity.’ I want it to be, ‘We see some good stuff; let’s get better from here.’”