Labriola On

 Labriola on the loss to the Saints

NEW ORLEANS – And so it has come to this. If you go back to the draft, which was staged in late April, they've been at this for eight full months, a period that included a couple of minicamps, 10 OTAs, a few weeks at their summer home in the Laurel Highlands, four preseason games and four months worth of a regular season.

All of that, and the Steelers are down to hoping that the Cleveland Browns can win a football game next Sunday.

That's their lot because when they needed a victory over the Saints here yesterday, they only could get close enough to almost win, and you know what it's called when a team almost wins? It's called losing, which is what the Steelers did by a 31-28 margin to complete an afternoon down by the bayou that found a way to be equal parts disappointing, frustrating, and aggravating.

Taking a stab at explaining how the outcome came to be will come later, but the most significant matter to digest is what the loss here did to the Steelers' hopes of playing football beyond next Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.

The loss dropped the Steelers to 8-6-1 on the season, and coupled with the Ravens' victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles on Saturday night, puts Baltimore in control of first place in the AFC North Division and gives it the inside track for the playoff spot that would come with winning that title. Simply, if the Ravens beat the Browns next Sunday in Baltimore, they go to the playoffs as the division champs. The Steelers only win the division if they defeat the Bengals, and the Browns win or tie in Baltimore.

That the Steelers could lose control of the division this season seemed highly unlikely, especially after they put the finishing touches on a six-game winning streak with victories in Baltimore and Jacksonville sandwiched around a Thursday night destruction of the Carolina Panthers. At Thanksgiving, the Steelers were 7-2-1, while the Ravens were said to be on the verge of a coaching change.

Losing to the Saints was the Steelers' fourth defeat in the five weekends since Thanksgiving, and if this one once had seemed to be a certain loss based upon how each of the teams was trending at the start of December, what actually took place on the floor of the Superdome was a series of events that could have, and maybe should have, ended in an upset victory.

There are three issues from yesterday that appear to be the primary culprits in turning victory into defeat for the Steelers – the pass interference penalties, a failed fake punt, and two turnovers on fumbles that aborted possessions showing some promise to end with points.

It has become tedious to continue having to point out how badly inconsistent NFL officiating is, and because nothing ever is done about it at the league level and nothing can be done about it at the individual team level, it has become an exercise as futile as complaining about the weather.

But still, there were two highly questionable pass interference penalties – the first in the end zone that "converted" a fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 34-yard line and set up an easy first quarter touchdown for the Saints; and the second "converted" a fourth-and-2 from the Steelers 26-yard line at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter. Both penalties were assigned to Joe Haden, and neither had the full support of the ex-zebras who now monitor the weekend's calls for the networks televising the games.

The attempted fake punt came on a fourth-and-5 from the Steelers 42-yard line with 4:11 remaining in a game the Saints trailed, 28-24, at the time, and coming as it did on the possession following a blocked field goal attempt by L.J. Fort, it came off as ill-timed and overly aggressive, or maybe it only seemed that way because it didn't work. A direct snap to Rosie Nix gained 1 yard fewer than what was needed for the first down, and the Saints then began a possession that would end with the game-winning touchdown.

And lastly, the turnovers in the form of two lost fumbles on separate Steelers possessions in the fourth quarter. The first of those was by Stevan Ridley at the end of a third-and-2 from the Saints 34-yard line with 10 minutes left in the game, and the second was by JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of an 8-yard reception at the Saints 34-yard line with less than 40 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

If those two pass interference penalties were called the way the broadcast zebras believed they should have been, or if instead of going for that fourth-and-5 with a fake punt Coach Mike Tomlin would've opted to leave Ben Roethlisberger and the offense on the field to try to get a first down that way, or if instead of two lost fumbles, those Steelers possessions in the fourth quarter had netted a couple of field goals or one touchdown or even one field goal …

Ah, but as the saying goes – if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyone would have a merry Christmas. After losing here to the Saints and ceding control of the division and putting themselves in a spot where they're going to have to depend on the Browns next weekend, it doesn't seem as though there will be anything merry about this Christmas for the Steelers.

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