PITTSBURGH — First-and-10. Two-minute warning. The New England Patriots nursing a three-point lead, on the road, against the stingy Steelers. “Renegade,” their opponent’s favorite fourth-quarter fight song, coursing through the speakers at Acrisure Stadium.
Ten yards, one first down, would give the Patriots their first victory of the season and just the second in their last seven games, dating back to their 2021 nosedive. Damien Harris knew that. He wanted to deliver that play.
“End the game,” the running back said a short while later, still wearing his game pants and arm tape as he addressed reporters. “That’s it. Just end the game.”
He did just that.
Harris’ first-down run was blown up in the backfield, but he rushed for 9 yards on second-and-12 — sliding down to ensure Pittsburgh would need to burn its final timeout — and then 5 yards on third-and-3, running behind left guard Cole Strange, left tackle Trent Brown and pulling center David Andrews each time. After the latter, quarterback Mac Jones kneeled three times to close out a sorely needed 17-14 win.
New England would have taken any variety of victory Sunday. Falling to 0-2 on the season could have been disastrous, especially with tough matchups against the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers awaiting in Weeks 3 and 4. But the manner in which the Patriots secured this W was particularly encouraging.
The visitors held the ball for the final 6:33 of regulation, finishing with a 13-play drive that featured four first downs to snuff out the Steelers’ comeback bid.
“It was just good that offensively, we could end the game with the ball in our hands,” Harris said. “Not giving it back to them, running out the clock. Whether it’s mixing in some runs, some passes — whatever the plays were — it was just about execution. In these tough games, these critical situations, hostile environments, that’s what it comes down to — good fundamentals and good execution. We put that on display, and we were able to close out the game.”
Harris, fellow back Rhamondre Stevenson and an offensive line that Jones called “amazing” keyed that game-clinching march. The Patriots called seven running plays, and five gained 5 or more yards: 6- and 8-yard pickups by Stevenson and 16-, 9- and 5-yarders by Harris. Jones also completed one pass for 11 yards to Lil’Jordan Humphrey — one of just two targets the reserve wideout has seen in two games this season. One play later, Jones scrambled 5 yards on third-and-2, helping New England overcome a holding penalty on wideout Jakobi Meyers.
“It was great to be able to hang on to the ball at the end there,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “Our backs ran hard, and our line gave them some space to run. … You always want to end the game kneeling the ball. That’s the best way to win. They did a great job.”
Added Andrews: “We got to third-and-3 at the end of the game right there. You’re going back to the huddle thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope they call a run here.’ Then we went back to it and finished it.”
Steelers outside linebacker Malik Reed also credited Jones, who looked shaky as a passer in the win, for checking the Patriots into favorable plays on their final drive.
“At the line, he was checking a lot,” Reed said, via TribLive.com. “He was seeing what we were in. He is a pretty smart guy. Once they had a feel for our adjustments, they were able to counteract those things.”
Multiple players called the impressive closing series a confidence-builder for New England’s offense, which has been maligned for its inconsistency since the start of training camp. Notably, it featured a heavy dose of the pulling-lineman power plays that the Patriots ran to great success in years past. It also successfully masked some of the turnover and penalty issues that hindered them earlier in Sunday’s game.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Harris, who limped off after his final carry but said postgame that he felt fine. “Obviously, we’re still not where we want to be, and we’ve got a long time before we get there. But closing the game out like that, being able to end the game with the ball in our hands with our offense, it’s a huge confidence booster. … The way we finished this game, it’s a good stepping stone in the right direction of continuing to become the team that we want to be.”
It wasn’t just the offense, either. After a Pat Freiermuth touchdown cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to three early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense closed out the game with back-to-back three-and-outs, surrendering 12 total yards across those two possessions. Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon broke up a pass to Najee Harris 15 yards downfield on the Steelers’ final offensive play.
Through two games, New England has allowed just two offensive touchdowns.
“Some good, good football when we needed it most,” Belichick said.