LOS ANGELES: Tom Brady piloted Super Bowl champions New England to the winning touchdown with 56 seconds left on Sunday (Monday in Manila) as the Patriots clinched the AFC East with a gut-wrenching 27-24 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On a day when the puzzle pieces of the NFL playoffs were dropping into place, the Patriots thwarted Pittsburgh’s bid to clinch a first-round bye and potentially homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
Making matters worse, the Steelers’ star receiver Antonio Brown was transported to hospital for examination and treatment of a calf injury suffered in the first half. The US media reported that Brown would miss the rest of the regular season but might be available for the playoffs.
And in a final heartbreaker for the Steelers, a 10-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Jesse James, which would have given Pittsburgh the lead, was overturned on review with less than 30 seconds remaining, as officials judged that the leaping James had not completed the catch.
Roethlisberger scrambled to give Pittsburgh two more chances to win, but his final pass was intercepted by New England’s Duron Harmon with five seconds to play.
“The ball bounces in weird ways and I’m glad it bounced our way today,” Brady said.
On the Patriots’ game-winning drive, Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski connected three straight times for 69 yards, setting up Dion Lewis’s eight-yard touchdown run.
Brady looked to Gronkowski again for a two-point conversion.
“Football is a crazy game,” Brady said. “You just keep fighting and fight ‘til the end.”
With the win, which ended Pittsburgh’s eight-game winning streak, the Patriots gained the edge in the hunt for homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs.
“We have a lot of football ahead of us,” Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “We can be dejected, but I like where we are at.”
Nick Foles, standing in for injured Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, threw four touchdown passes as the Eagles held off the New York Giants 34-29 to clinch a first-round bye.
The Jacksonville Jaguars booked their first playoff appearance in a decade, thumping the Houston Texans 45-7, and the Minnesota Vikings clinched the NFC North division crown with a 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Eagles, who lost Wentz to a season-ending knee injury last week when they clinched the NFC East, rallied from a 14-point deficit behind Foles, spoiling a three-touchdown effort from Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
It was never in doubt in Jacksonville, where Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles passed for three touchdowns in the first half on the way to a 31-0 lead at the interval.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Jaguars owner Shad Khan, whose team totaled just 17 wins over the past five seasons. “To win it and win it the way we did today—mind-blowing.”