The Steelers not only lost to the Saints on Sunday, falling 31-28, but they also lost their hold on first place in the AFC North and for now fell out of the six-team playoff picture in the AFC.
The Steelers will need to win on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field (4:25 p.m. kickoff) and the Cleveland Browns will have to beat the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium for the Steelers to make the postseason.
"We didn't make enough plays in the end," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We accept responsibility for that. We acknowledge that. We tip our caps to New Orleans. It was a tough fought game. It was a tough environment today. I appreciate the efforts of the men.
"Not enough positive play making in the three phases to secure victory. Significant plays. We turned the ball over in scoring territory twice in the second half. Big time plays in terms of the game."
The plays Tomlin was referring to include a fumble by Stevan Ridley with just over 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The Steelers were driving, with the ball at the Saints 34-yard line, when the ball was knocked free and the Saints recovered.
The other was a fumble by JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was having a strong game with 11 catches for 115 yards while playing with a groin injury. With 41 seconds to play at the Saints 34-yard line, Smith-Schuster fumbled as the Steelers were driving late to either tie or win.
"We weren't able to get the necessary stop when we needed it on defense," said Tomlin. "I chose to go for a fake punt and we were unsuccessful there. I take responsibility for that. I just wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to ensure we had the opportunity to win the game. I thought we had the chance to get it. I thought if we did not stop them we would have the opportunity to have the ball last. Which we did. Unsuccessful nonetheless."
The loss masked a strong performance by Ben Roethlisberger, who completed 33 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns and Antonio Brown, who had 14 receptions for 185 yards and two yards.
The Steelers took the opening kickoff for the second straight week but didn't have much success early on. Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for 15 yards, but that is about all they would manage. Three plays netted just three yards and they were forced to punt.
Drew Brees came out firing hitting Michael Thomas for 13 and 10 yards consecutively. Despite Brees having the hot hand, Coach Sean Payton put in Taysom Hill, whose deep pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. was intercepted by Sean Davis in the end zone. Davis returned it 27 yards to the 25-yard line, where a15-yard horse collar penalty was tacked on when Davis was taken down from behind by Josh Hill.
The Steelers made the interception count. Roethlisberger went eight for nine on the drive, but only managed 35 yards. Chris Boswell, who has struggled as of late, was money with a 49-yard field goal, giving the Steelers an early 3-0 lead.
A penalty that had everyone shaking their head pretty much gave the Saints a touchdown on the next drive. On fourth-and-one from the Steelers 34-yard line Brees went deep to Alvin Kamara. Joe Haden was hit with a questionable pass interference call in the end zone, giving the Saints the ball at the one-yard line. On the next play Mark Ingram took it in for a one-yard touchdown, giving the Saints the lead, 7-3.
The offense got clicking for the Steelers on the next drive, but not when they got in the red zone. Roethlisberger went to Vance McDonald, who pulled in a 49-yard reception, including 21 yards on the run after catch to the 13-yard line. It would stall there. In need of a touchdown, the Steelers had to settle for a 30-yard field goal, Boswell's second of the game, to cut the lead to 7-6.
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 16 game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Another pass interference call aided the Saints on their ensuing drive when Morgan Burnett was hit with one that gave the Saints the ball at the 16-yard line. Kamara capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown run, extending the lead to 14-6.
After the Steelers went three-and-out, the defense stepped up big, stopping the Saints and forcing them to punt for the first time. The Saints downed the punt at the eight-yard line, but a penalty gave the Steelers another shot at better field position. It didn't work. The second punt went out of bounds at the three-yard line.
Backed up almost in his own end zone Roethlisberger did what he does best – engineered a long drive. Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for four passes for 64 yards. Eli Apple was called for pass interference, a 20-yard penalty that gave the Steelers a first down at the two-yard line. After a one-yard loss by Stevan Ridley, Roethlisberger found Jaylen Samuels for a three-yard score. Roethlisberger hit Eli Rogers for the two-point conversion, tying the game, 14-14, with 40 seconds to play in the half.
The Saints came fighting back on a quick drive that resulted in a 43-yard field goal by Wil Lutz, sending the Saints into the locker room at halftime ahead, 17-14.
The Saints extended the lead to 24-14, opening the second half with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Kamara, his second of the game. The key play on the drive was a short pass to Kamara where he took it for 42 yards.
Roethlisberger and company were quick to answer. He hit Smith-Schuster for two passes for 35 yards, and Brown for three passes for 32 yards, including a wide-open three-yard touchdown to pull back within three, 24-21.
A fired-up defense got to Brees courtesy of sacks by T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt, giving the offense the ball right back.
Staying hot, Roethlisberger hit Brown for 26 yards and Smith-Schuster for 20 yards. Roethlisberger capped it off the four-play, 66-yard drive, hitting Brown for a 20-yard touchdown, taking a 28-24 lead, the first lead since it was, 3-0 early on.
The defense forced a three-and-out, giving the offense another opportunity. With the offense driving, a mistake came at a time they couldn't afford it. One third-and-two Ridley fumbled, and the Saints recovered.
When a play was needed, special teams came through. The defense held, forcing Lutz to attempt a 50-yard field goal. L.J. Fort made a killer play, blocking the kick, and the Steelers took over at their own 37-yard line.
While special teams worked on the previous drive, this time it didn't. On fourth-and-five Roosevelt Nix took it on the fake punt but came up one-yard short and the saints took over on downs at the Steelers 46-yard line.
The Saints took advantage of the field position. Brees hit Thomas for a two-yard touchdown, giving the Saints a 31-28 lead. The Steelers appeared to have stopped the Saints on the drive, but on fourth down another pass interference call gave the Saints a first down.
A look at how they scored:
First Quarter: Steelers 3, Saints 0
Scoring Play: Chris Boswell 49-yard field goal.
Scoring Summary: 9-29-4:46
First Quarter: Steelers 3, Saints 7
Scoring Play: Mark Ingram one-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 6-75-2:35
Second Quarter: Steelers 6, Saints 7
Scoring Play: Chris Boswell 30-yard field goal
Scoring Summary: 9-78-3:52
Second Quarter: Steelers 6, Saints 14
Scoring Play: Alvin Kamara eight-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 8-75-3:43
Second Quarter: Steelers 14, Saints 14
Scoring Play: Ben Roethlisberger three-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels. Roethlisberger to Eli Rogers for two-point conversion.
Scoring Summary: 15-97-6:04
Second Quarter: Steelers 14, Saints 17
Scoring Play: Wil Lutz 43-yard field goal.
Scoring Summary: 4-50-0:38
Third Quarter: Steelers 14, Saints 24
Scoring Play: Alvin Kamara one-yard touchdown run.
Scoring Summary: 11-75-5:47
Third Quarter: Steelers 21, Saints 24
Scoring Play: Ben Roethlisberger three-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
Scoring Summary: 9-75-4:25
Third Quarter: Steelers 28, Saints 24
Scoring Play: Ben Roethlisberger 20-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
Scoring Summary: 4-66-1:36
Fourth Quarter: Steelers 28, Saints 31
Scoring Play: Drew Brees two-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas.
Scoring Summary: 10-46-2:41