PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' season was teetering on this play, their eternal foil lining up for one final pass to send the Steelers stumbling out of the playoff field. The New England Patriots are certainly a diminished version of themselves right now, but their history of owning the Steelers remains overwhelming and undeniable. And three straight Steelers losses had caused even Ben Roethlisberger to have some questions last week about what his team was. He didn't want to call it a crossroads, he would say later, but it was sink or swim.
"Are we going to step up and play, come together as a team?" he wondered. "Or would it divide us?"
Their youngest players, like running back Jaylen Samuels (19 rushes, 142 yards) and James Washington (three receptions, 65 yards), had played starring roles. Their lines had crushed the Patriots, forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes. There were 14 penalties against New England, including one for offensive holding on the final drive that sent the Patriots back just outside the red zone to the 21-yard line, from which they would not budge again.
Under pressure earlier in the fourth quarter, Brady had made an astoundingly poor decision to try to throw the ball away instead of taking a sack. The pass did not have enough on it and it hung in the air as Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Steelers cornerback Joe Haden converged on the sideline. Haden was just hoping the ball would not drift out of bounds, so that he could try to make a play on it. It stayed in and Haden leaped, high-pointing the ball well over the heads of Gronkowski and Edelman, ending a threat on the 4-yard line.
But two interceptions by Roethlisberger in Patriots territory had canceled other scoring chances and there wasn't anybody who reveled in the playing of "Renegade" at the two minute warning, who frantically waved their Terrible Towels, who didn't anticipate exactly what was coming. Here was Brady again, the protagonist of so many Steelers horrors, to do what he does. So when Brady laced a 34-yard pass to Edelman, and then kept inching the Patriots closer, well, the AFC playoffs seemed to be drifting away off the Pittsburgh horizon.
Brady had made these passes so many times before to cut the hearts out of opponents. Josh Gordon was off the field for the play. And Gronkowski had gotten involved only in the fourth quarter, shut down by a variety of Steelers defenders and coverages. So Brady reared back and looked down the deep middle for Edelman. It was crowded at the goal line and in the mayhem the ball skipped away.
The Steelers raced from the sideline, as if they had won something much more than a single game that keeps them only barely ahead of the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North lead. Mike Tomlin, who had been heavily criticized during Pittsburgh's three-game skid, said the game felt bigger not because of the opponent, but because of the Steelers' circumstances and recent losses, which all came when their defense yielded late game-winning scores.
"It's about us overcoming things that have been issues for us," Tomlin said.
If things are not quite that dire for the Patriots, they are still unexpected. After consecutive losses, the Patriots have not yet clinched the AFC East and, right now, they are the AFC's No. 3 seed, with the Chiefs and Texans ahead of them. If the seedings remain that way, it would be the first time since 2009 that the Patriots are not a No. 1 or 2 seed and it would be the first time they would have to play on Wild Card Weekend since Ray Rice and the Ravens demolished them at home to end that season. This is also the first time since 2009 that the Patriots, who are 3-5 on the road this season, have lost five regular-season games.
Their excellence and consistency has been remarkable. It is also now facing a significant test.
The Steelers know what it's like to have to stare those down. At the most desperate moment of their season, against the rival who has bedeviled them for 17 years, they passed the test.
"Sometimes," Tomlin said, "you've got to cut your eyelids off when you want to blink."