The most anticipated game of the season, which will likely decide the no. 1 seed in the AFC, lived up to its billing on Sunday, but not everyone left happy: The Steelers exited Heinz Field with a bad taste in their mouths, and that’s not a shot at ketchup. Pittsburgh lost the game, 27-24, in dramatic fashion, blowing a lead that it had held for the bulk of the second half, first allowing New England to take a three-point lead with just under a minute to go, then working their way well within field goal range with less than 10 seconds remaining, only for Ben Roethlisberger to throw an interception into triple coverage to seal the loss.
A game that saw Antonio Brown and Rex Burkhead go down with injuries produced fewer points than expected; both teams struggled to string together scoring drives. Late in the fourth quarter, though, both offenses began to move the ball effortlessly to produce one of the wildest finishes of the season. The Patriots got the ball down 24-19 with just over two minutes to go, which is always ominous. Tom Brady, essentially telling the rest of his receivers “Let the professionals handle this,” threw four consecutive passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski, which went for an incompletion, a 26-yard catch, another 26-yard catch, and a 17-yard catch to put the Pats at the 8-yard line and give Gronk 69 receiving yards on the drive. On the next play, Dion Lewis ran in a touchdown, and on the two-point conversion, Brady hit—you guessed it—Gronk, giving the Pats a 27-24 lead with 56 seconds to play.
Now the Steelers had the chance to stage their own dramatic comeback, and getting in position to do so turned out to be easy. On the Steelers’ first play, JuJu Smith-Schuster did this:
JuJu is not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need right nowpic.twitter.com/0pYucuXT8y— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 18, 2017
That 69-yard catch and run, an incredible play for the Steelers rookie in the biggest situation of his career, put the Steelers at the New England 10 with 34 seconds left, down 27-24. On the next play, they scored the go-ahead touchdown.
Or at least, they thought they did.
Steelers got robbed. NFL still doesn’t know what a catch is. pic.twitter.com/RdTmsAAln5— Sports Update (@SportsUpdateIG) December 18, 2017
The reversal of Steelers tight end Jesse James’s catch by the coward replay booth came because he bobbled the ball as he extended to the end zone. The non-catch left the Steelers with second-and-goal with 28 seconds left, and Roethlisberger tossed a 3-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was tackled in bounds.
That led to a mad scramble. With the seconds ticking, Roethlisberger desperately tried to line the Steelers up to get one last shot at the end zone on third down. Roethlisberger snapped the ball and seemed to fake a spike, and both the offensive and defensive lines stood up and looked confused as to whether the play was happening.
New England’s defensive backs, however, were not confused, and they dropped into coverage. Roethlisberger rocketed the ball in to Eli Rogers, who ran a slant over the middle of the field in triple coverage. The ball was tipped into the air and intercepted by defensive back Duron Harmon.
It’s a heartbreaking loss for the Steelers, and an avoidable one at that. As Tony Romo shouted on the broadcast, the only throw a team should attempt in that situation is a fade, because it’s unlikely to be intercepted. A slant is at a high risk of getting tipped in the air, which is exactly what happened. It’s all the more confounding considering the Patriots’ history of picking off slants in big games.
Roethlisberger attempted to clarify the pre-snap sequence in his postgame interview, according to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala.
Ben Roethlisberger says there was a difference of opinion on #Steelers final play. "It wasn't a fake spike. I was yelling 'clock it' b/c I felt that was the thing to do, to clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline: 'Don't clock it, don't clock it.'"— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) December 18, 2017
Now the Patriots and Steelers are each 11-3, and New England holds the tiebreaker. The Patriots’ remaining two games are against the Bills and the Jets, while the Steelers face the Texans and the Browns. Unless the Patriots lose in one (or both) of those matchups and the Steelers make up a game in the standings in the next two weeks, the road to the Super Bowl will run through Foxborough. Brown, an MVP candidate this season, partially tore his calf in the game, and though early reports indicate that his regular season is over, they also suggest that he’ll be ready for the postseason. If we thought this game of the year was hyped, just wait until the postseason rematch.