PITTSBURGH -- The clock was ticking down and all around the Pittsburgh Steelers there was confusion. Confusion over what constitutes a catch, over why the ever-so-slight movement of the football in Jesse James' hands as he crossed the plane of the end zone was enough to negate a touchdown that might have determined home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. And confusion in Ben Roethlisberger's ear, as he and the Steelers' offense sought to spike the ball to stop the clock and set up a field goal attempt that would have sent the game of the year into overtime.
It's going to take a while to sort through everything that happened in the Patriots' 27-24 victory over the Steelers. Things that are important -- injuries to critical players, the Patriots' struggles on third down, the Steelers' inability to close out a game in which they held the ball for 10 minutes longer than the Patriots -- will get short shrift, engulfed by so many improbable plays in a row they came to feel routine.
So back to those final moments. It is not overstating the situation to say that the AFC might have turned on them. The Steelers and Patriots have both won their divisions and, with both at 11-3, the victorious Patriots now own the all-important tiebreaker for home-field advantage. And a key to having a chance to topple the Patriots in the playoffs is to get them out of Foxborough.
The Steelers were seven yards from nearly guaranteeing they would not have to make the trip to New England for what still feels like an inevitable rematch. But the Patriots have a way of making their opponents, even the mentally tough ones like the Steelers, unravel. They make them overthink. They make them nervous. They make them do things that make no sense.
Roethlisberger got his team lined up assuming the spike play was the one the Steelers wanted. It would have stopped the clock and given the coaches a chance, on fourth down, to kick a tying field goal or -- unlikely -- go for the win on fourth down. There were 9 seconds remaining in a game that had already endured stunning emotional swings, from a surprise appearance by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, sitting in a luxury suite and waving a Terrible Towel, his long-term future after a spinal injury still unclear, to a partially torn calf that sent receiver Antonio Brown to the hospital, to a frantic Patriots comeback from an eight-point deficit to take the lead with a minute left. The Steelers had held that lead since late in the second quarter, on the first possession without Brown, a long, grinding touchdown drive that made a statement that the Steelers were made up of more than one superstar player, that they could stay with this generation's dominant champion even at less than full manpower.
These final moments were the ultimate proof of that, it seemed. The Steelers had given themselves one last grasp at victory on the first snap after the Patriots had taken a three-point lead with a minute remaining with a 69-yard catch and run by rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He tiptoed up the sideline then cut across the field, leaving Patriots defenders in his wake, forcing everyone to consider that the Steelers' inability to contain Rob Gronkowski, who had galloped for consecutive 26-yard receptions on the go-ahead touchdown drive, would wind up being irrelevant. Then came James' seeming touchdown and Roethlisberger said the team was "extremely ecstatic." Then, the play was overturned, and the Steelers had to reel their emotions in one last time, to try to figure out what to do.
"It came from the sideline, 'Don't clock it, don't clock it,' " Roethlisberger said. "At that time, everyone thinks it's clock, so you don't have time to get everyone lined up."
"Man, it would have been fun for it to have turned out a different way," Roethlisberger said.
Tomlin, perhaps trying to cover for the chaos, said "we play and play to win" when he was asked, before Roethlisberger offered his alternative unvarnished view, about the play.
It is an admirable mindset, and one that almost always serves the Steelers well. But this was a precious missed opportunity and they knew it. The Steelers will need all the breaks they can get going into the playoffs, with Brown's status uncertain, and home field would be a very good one to secure. In the locker room, there was pin-drop silence. General manager Kevin Colbert stared straight ahead, stone faced. James spoke quietly in a corner, saying he felt good about what he thought was a catch. It was, according to the pool report with referee Tony Corrente, a fairly clear-cut application of the byzantine catch rule, because James lost control of the ball when he went to the ground, the ball hitting the ground making it an incomplete pass.
It does that a lot for the Patriots, in large part because they create so much chaos for opponents. The Falcons forget about bleeding the clock and running the ball and the Patriots mount a Super Bowl comeback for the ages. The Steelers get their signals crossed and the Patriots steal a game that had seemed lost more than once.
It was crushing and elating, a frenetic jumble of brilliance and misfires and there is nobody who wouldn't sign up for more, perhaps a month from now.
"Yes, because that means we made it pretty far," Roethlisberger said.