Patriots ride Gronkowski to 9th straight AFC East title

New England Patriots strong safety Duron Harmon, center, celebrates his interception in the end zone of a pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. The Patriots won 27-24. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers still can’t figure out how to cover Rob Gronkowski. The AFC East still can’t figure out how to catch up with the New England Patriots. And now any AFC team that wants to do it in the playoffs will likely have to do it in Foxborough.

Good luck with all that.

The defending Super Bowl champions remain a tough out regardless of circumstance. The proof came to life in a 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in which they rallied from an eight-point deficit to score twice in the final 4 minutes to lock up their record ninth straight division title.

Six days removed from an ugly loss in Miami, the Patriots (11-3) ended Pittsburgh’s eight-game winning streak with a late goal line stand and a dive into the NFL rule book by referee Tony Corrente that overturned Pittsburgh’s apparent game-winning touchdown.

And no, New England head coach Bill Belichick insists, as the years pass and the Patriots remain above the fray, luck has nothing to do with it.

”Just keep competing,” Belichick said. ”Just keep competing for 60 minutes. That’s what you do. Just keep competing.”

Nobody does it better than the Patriots (11-3). Having Gronkowski helps. The superstar tight end continued his career-long domination of the Steelers. He came in averaging 99 yards receiving against Pittsburgh and was even better in front of the largest crowd to watch an NFL game at soggy Heinz Field, finishing with nine receptions for 168 yards , including three on New England’s game-winning drive.

”I love getting in that zone,” Gronkowski said. ”It feels good. I wish I could be like that 24-7, every week and every day.”

Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis spent New England’s final possession lined up across from Gronkowski and nearly sealed the victory but let a potential game-clinching interception smack off his fingertips. Given a second chance, Brady just kept lobbing the ball to Gronkowski. Each time, Gronkowski, who has five inches and 60 pounds on Davis, came down with it.

”I battled man that whole game with them,” Davis said. ”We came up short that last drive. That’s pretty much it.”

Some takeaways from what the Steelers hope is the first of two meetings with the Patriots this season:

SURVIVING THE GROUND

The Steelers (11-3) still haven’t beaten New England since 2011 but appear to be much closer to the Patriots than they were a year ago when they feel to New England twice by an average of 15 points. Pittsburgh had a chance to win it late after a 69-yard catch-and-run by rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster put the ball at the New England 10. Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Jesse James wide open over the middle and James caught the ball, put one knee on the ground and stretched across the goal line.

One problem: the ball moved when James’ hands hit the ground and the score was overturned on replay.

”You have to survive the ground, which means you have to maintain control of the football,” Corrente said.

Something Corrente said James didn’t do. James begged to differ.

”I thought it was a touchdown for sure,” James said.

A WELCOME RETURN

Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier made a surprise appearance in a private suite at Heinz Field less than two weeks removed from spinal stabilization surgery. Cameras cut to Shazier sitting in a private box just before New England’s first offensive series, and the 25-year-old responded by waving a Terrible Towel.

Shazier is out for the season and his football future remains uncertain after his helmet struck Cincinnati’s Josh Malone in the back on Dec. 4. Doctors said earlier this week that Shazier has begun physical rehabilitation but neither the team nor the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has released any specifics on the nature of Shazier’s injury.

Still, the sight of Shazier smiling from above sent a jolt through his teammates.

”We didn’t know,” Davis said. ”It was a great feeling man having him out there.”

HURTING

The Steelers lost wide receiver Antonio Brown to a left calf injury in the first half. The NFL’s leading receiver was attempting to haul in a catch in the end zone when his feet became tangled up with a pair of New England defenders. He didn’t put any weight on the leg as he was helped off the field and later went to the hospital for further evaluation.

Pittsburgh’s offense thrived anyway, with Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers scoring touchdowns and Smith-Schuster racking up 116 yards receiving.

”I thought a lot of guys did some good things,” Roethlisberger said. ”But that’s what we expect.”

HERE FOR IT

Roethlisberger attempted to the old fake spike on Pittsburgh’s last snap. Rather than clock it to set up a field goal, instead he tried to hit Rogers in the end zone. The Patriots were right on top of it. Roethlisberger’s pass caromed into the hands of New England safety Duron Harmon on a play New England practices at least a half-dozen times a season.

”We seen it before, everybody didn’t panic,” Harmon said. ”Nobody was out there acting like they didn’t know what to do. We just played our roles, played good football and it turned into a big play for us.”

UP NEXT

Patriots: Hosts Buffalo next Sunday.

Steelers: Play in Houston for the first time since 2011 on Christmas.

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