Since the institution of regular season overtime for the start of the 1974 NFL regular season, ties have become a rarity, and that's a good thing because it's difficult to make sense of them, to put them into the proper context. There are times when a tie is a detriment to a team and times when a tie actually could end up being beneficial to a team; times when a tie can feel like a victory and times when it can feel like a loss.
Since the start of the 2018 regular season, there have been five regular season games ending in a tie, and the Steelers have been involved in two of them. The most recent of those was on Sunday at Heinz Field, and while it's going to take some time to be able to understand fully what Steelers 16, Lions 16 will come to mean for the balance of the 2021 regular season, what was apparent as soon as the game ended was that neither team deserved to win.
William Shakespeare wrote a play titled, "The Comedy of Errors," and if The Bard was a sportswriter, it would've been about Steelers vs. Lions.
The stage was set for strange happenings when news broke some 18 hours before kickoff that Ben Roethlisberger was going on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and would not play in the game vs. the Lions. It would be Mason Rudolph at quarterback for the Steelers, the winners of four straight and having a chance to take over first place in the AFC North with a victory over the 0-8 Lions. And this was possible only because the Ravens, winners of six of their previous seven games, already had lost to the 2-7 Miami Dolphins on Thursday night.
Then the ball was put on the tee at 1:02 p.m., and things really got weird. The Lions, who came into Heinz Field with a rushing offense ranked No. 26 in the NFL, ran for 116 yards (7.1 average) in the first half, and six plays into the third quarter, they had upped their rushing total to 201 yards and their average per carry to 9.6.
With 12:09 left in the third quarter, the Lions had 201 yards rushing via a 9.6 average and a six-point lead, 16-10, and yet they still had Jared Goff attempt 17 passes before the end of overtime. On the other sideline, the Steelers were playing without Ben Roethlisberger, playing with Mason Rudolph who hadn't taken a regular season snap since the 2020 finale, and they had him attempt 50 passes in the game, even though neither JuJu Smith-Schuster nor Chase Claypool was healthy enough to be in uniform.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Anyway, with 11:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, the score was tied, 16-16, following a 51-yard field goal by Chris Boswell, and over the next 21-plus minutes of game time both teams took turns making mistakes that squandered opportunities to pull out a win.
It started on the Lions' offensive possession following that Boswell field goal. The Steelers defense put together a three-and-out, but with Detroit in punt formation on a fourth-and-5, Miles Killebrew was flagged for running into the punter to give the Lions a chance to go for it on fourth-and-inches. Detroit converted, and even though no points were scored as a result, the Steelers lost two-and-a-half minutes off the clock for their own offense.
On the next Detroit possession, Cam Heyward sacked Goff back to the 2-yard line and after the punt the Steelers took possession at the Lions 48-yard line. The Steelers offense came on and gained three yards on three plays, two of which were incomplete passes before punting the ball back to Detroit, which diddled around without accomplishing much for the remainder of the fourth quarter without ever crossing midfield, and it was onto overtime.
Detroit won the toss and received the overtime kickoff, and a second sack by Heyward forced another Lions punt that gave the ball to the Steelers offense at their 17-yard line. On the second play of the possession, Rudolph hooked up with Diontae Johnson, whose 39-yard catch-and-run ended at the Detroit 42-yard line when Mark Gilbert forced a fumble that Amani Oruwariye recovered.
On the next play, a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception was nullified by a holding penalty on Devin Bush. Two plays after that, the Lions were gifted a first down when Tre Norwood was flagged for roughing the passer. Seemingly though, all was well that ended well shortly thereafter because Ryan Santoso badly missed a potential game-winning 48-yard field goal.
The Steelers got to start at their 38-yard line following that miss, but on the second play, Kendrick Green airmailed a snap over Rudolph's head for a 12-yard loss. The Steelers ended up punting, and on the first play of the Lions possession, Terrell Edmunds sacked Goff for a loss of 13 yards. Remember, the Lions had over 200 yards rushing with 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter, but at this point that seemed like weeks ago, and Goff was doing more throwing than handing off.
A Detroit punt seemingly gave the Steelers the ball at their 22-yard line, but that became the 11-yard line after a holding penalty on Ulysees Gilbert. Time for one more gaffe, and Pat Freiermuth did the honors by losing a fumble at the Detroit 38-yard line with eight seconds left in overtime. From that spot, had Freiermuth maintained possession and gotten out of bounds, the Steelers could've had Boswell attempt a 56-yard field goal. Certainly not a gimme, but in the previous five quarters plus an overtime, Boswell had made kicks of 54, 52, and 51 yards. So it wouldn't have been a "hail mary" either.
Anyway, the game ended in a tie, and for the most part the Steelers made too many mistakes to create enough early separation between themselves and a winless opponent to build an early cushion on the scoreboard, and then they matched the Lions gaffe for gaffe to keep things uncomfortably close all the way to the end.
Today, it's easy to point to the loss of Roethlisberger to COVID, then to the in-game losses of Joe Haden, T.J. Watt, Kevin Dotson, and Trai Turner to injuries, to their three turnovers, to the penalties that nullified one takeaway and cost them valuable field position, to the poor tackling that helped the Lions finish the game with 229 yards rushing.
It's easy to point to those things, because all of them contributed to the tie that felt like a loss when it was over, and as the season wears on it's very possible that tie will impact them and their record similarly to the way a loss would.
Bottom line: this was a game against an 0-8 opponent they had to win because their schedule now gets significantly tougher. They had to win, they had opportunities to win, but they didn't. Which is why it feels so much like a loss.