It was billed as the regular season game of the year, and in terms of back-and-forth sustained action, it lived up to that billing. There were 119 snaps of the ball during almost three full hours of suspense, and there was plenty riding on the outcome, maybe most importantly the site of a rematch in the postseason that today seems inevitable.
Months of work went into getting to the point where this game would mean what it did, and then once it began there was a lot of blood and sweat invested in achieving the desired outcome. There can be many interpretations of why the game ended the way it did, why the final score was 27-24 and the Patriots won and the Steelers lost, but here it will say it all came down to three passes.
One that should have been caught. One that was caught, only we were told it wasn't. And one that never should have been thrown.
That each of those came in the game's final 126 seconds simply serves to heighten their significance.
The first of the three, the pass that should have been caught, came with 2:06 remaining and the Steelers trying to protect a 24-19 lead. It was a first-and-10 from the Patriots 23-yard line, and Tom Brady's pass for Rob Gronkowski over the middle was tipped by Cam Heyward at the line of scrimmage, and the way the tip altered the speed and the course of the ball put it directly in the catch radius of safety Sean Davis.
It's easy to declare from the climate-controlled quiet of a stadium's press box that a pass should've been intercepted, but in a game like this against an opponent like this, that pass has to be intercepted if you expect to win the game. Because when a defense has a chance to make that play against Tom Brady and fails to do so, he will make you pay for your failure.
Which is exactly what happened, because on the next three snaps, Brady completed passes of 26, 26, and 17 yards, respectively, to Gronkowski, and the Patriots went from second-and-10 at their 23-yard line to first-and-goal at the Steelers 8-yard line. An 8-yard run by Dion Lewis and a successful 2-point conversion pass to Gronkowski gave the Patriots a 27-24 lead.
The resiliency the Steelers have shown throughout this regular season showed up once again. After the ensuing kickoff, on first down from their own 21-yard line with 52 seconds and one timeout remaining, JuJu Smith-Schuster authored a big-time play in a critical moment.
Taking a short pass over the middle from Ben Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster turned it into a 69-yard gain by out-running some Patriots defenders and out-smarting some others who expected him to hug the sideline on his way to getting as much as he could before stepping out of bounds to stop the clock. Instead, he cut back across the grain into the middle of the field, and when he was finally tackled, the Steelers had the ball at the Patriots 10-yard line with 34 seconds left after using their final timeout.
On the next play, Roethlisberger found Jesse James lurking over the middle inside the 5-yard line, and he delivered the ball accurately and on time. James turned and took a could of steps without being touched and then dove across the goal line. The on-field officials immediately signaled touchdown, and the Heinz Field record crowd of 68,574 lost their collective minds as the Patriots pondered the likelihood of a comeback with 28 seconds remaining.
But then came a review. The CBS crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo couldn't figure out what was taking so long to confirm the touchdown, and after the game Bill Belichick admitted he didn't notice anything untoward about the play until referee Tony Corrente announced that James "didn't survive the ground" in overturning the call on the field and ruling the pass incomplete.
The definition of a catch in the NFL these days has been perverted by that stupid ruling on the Dez Bryant "catch" in the 2014 NFC Divisional Round Game between the Cowboys and the Packers. It was a mistake to overturn that catch and instead of admitting it was a mistake, the NFL instead created an alternate reality to justify the call and now the absurdity of subsequent interpretations has grown exponentially until "surviving the ground" is presented as a valid explanation for yet another overturned touchdown.
Sure, by rule, and when viewed in high-definition and super slow-motion, visual evidence can be "found" to justify any call you want to make, but in real time when viewed by people in the football business, that's a catch and a touchdown. If the game was played the way kids play on the playground – where you call your own fouls if it's basketball, or penalties if it's football, or balls and strikes if it's baseball – that's a catch and a touchdown because kids know it when they see it.
Except when it's the NFL and then it's not, which meant the Steelers had a second-and-goal with 28 seconds remaining. Roethlisberger's pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey gained 3 yards, and the clock was running. The offense rushed to the line of scrimmage, and Roethlisberger attempted a fake spike followed by a quick slant pass to Eli Rogers.
Immediately after the game, details were hazy about who was responsible for what, but one explanation was that coordinator Todd Haley was in favor of spiking the ball to stop the clock, while Tomlin wanted to go for the win. Regardless of who ordered what, the ball never should have been thrown. Rogers wasn't open, and he wasn't coming open, and he's not Antonio Brown where that doesn't necessarily matter. Because the resulting interception in the end zone left five seconds on the clock is proof there would've been time for another snap, which makes the decision to force it into traffic reckless at best.
And so the Steelers lost the game, another game to the Patriots, and with it a chance to clinch a bye in the playoffs and set themselves up for home-field advantage. They still can earn a bye, but it seems certain their path to the Super Bowl will have to go through Foxborough.
If that's the way it unfolds and they get a rematch in the AFC Championship Game, for the outcome to be different they will have to make the kinds of plays they didn't on those three snaps in the final 126 seconds yesterday.