Trying to make sense of the Steelers’ last-second loss to the Patriots

Injury to insult: Antonio Brown has a torn calf muscle.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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What in the heck just happened?

In one minute the Steelers went from losing to the New England Patriots to winning to losing and we’re left trying to figure out how the last two minutes of the most important NFL game of the year ended with the Patriots winning 27-24. And Antonio Brown is hurt.

Let’s walk through this together.

The Steelers were beating the Patriots 24-16 with four minutes to play when New England opted to kick a field goal to cut the score to 24-19.

Already without Antonio Brown for the second half of the game — Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported Brown has a partially torn calf muscle  — the Steelers got the ball back with a chance to ice the game. They opted to hand the ball to Le’Veon Bell for one yard, gain four more yards on a Ben Roethlisberger scramble then attempt a pass, which was incomplete, before punting the ball back to the Patriots with 2:16 left on the clock.

Instead, New England got the ball on their 23 yard line and threw to Rob Gronkowski four times, completing three for a total of 69 yards.

The first pass of those four, however, was nearly intercepted by the Steelers, which would have sealed the game right then and there.

Alas, three huge passes to Gronk put the Pats inside the 10 yard line, and the next play was a rushing touchdown for Dion Lewis to give New England the improbable late lead. The Pats opted for a two-point conversion which, shocker, went to Gronk to put New England up three.

New England left :52 seconds on the clock for Pittsburgh, which had the Twitterati screaming they left too much time on the field for Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. They were right. Almost.

JuJu Smith-Schuster scampered for 69 yards on the first play from scrimmage, to put the Steelers within striking distance of the end zone. As the drive started, the team was surely thinking about getting into field goal range to tie the game and send it to overtime, but at the Patriots’ 10 yard line, it was time to go win the game.

And they did, until they didn’t.

Jesse James caught a Roethlisberger pass and fell into the end zone for what looked like the game-winning score. But upon review, it was determined that as he fell into the end zone the ball squirted loose. Since the ball coming loose was all part of the initial catch process, and not a “secondary football move,” the play was ruled incomplete. The points came off the board and the Steelers had to try for another chance to win or tie.

So was it a touchdown? It should be, but the NFL rule about what is or isn’t a catch is horrible. And yet, by the letter of the law, James did not complete the catch.

And here’s the official report on the call from the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron.

When asked after the game about the call, Mike Tomlin said “It’s really irrelevant how I feel about it, to be honest with you. It’s not going to change the outcome of the game. I’m not going to cry over spilled milk and all of that crap and talk about replay.”

And so, with no timeouts, Roethlisberger had to get his team focused on three more shots at the end zone. On second down he passed short to Darrius Heyward-Bey, in for Brown in the second half, who fell down in bounds after catching a pass at the seven yard line. With the clock ticking, Roethlisberger opted not to spike the football to set up a final play on fourth down, perhaps thinking the stoppage would give the coaching staff a chance to call on the field goal unit for a tie.

Instead, Ben went for the win, and this happened:

Roethlisberger faked the spike and snapped the ball, with three of his four receivers seemingly confused as to what was going on. Roethlisberger tried to hammer the ball into the end zone to Eli Rogers on a one-receiver slant, but the ball was deflected and intercepted by the Patriots, sealing the game.

They had it won, then it was lost. Then it was won again. Then they lost, and they could have just settled for a tie.

When asked after the game if he was upset at Roethlisberger going for the win, Tomlin said, plainly, “No. No, man. We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

And in doing that, they lost.

It’s not even that Roethlisberger made the wrong decision. When he was under center the Steelers had 12 seconds to play and two downs. It was that he tried to throw that pass in between three defenders that was so crazy. Throw a fade. If the ball is incomplete the Steelers could have still kicked the field goal and gone to overtime.

Instead, the Patriots win the game of the year and improve to 11-3, while the Steelers fall to 11-3 with a loss now to New England. Should the Steelers and Patriots finish with the same record, home field will go to Foxboro and the AFC title game would be on the road.

Moreover, the Steelers have games against Houston and Cleveland, which should both be wins. But if they lose either of those games — and the Steelers have a tendency to play down to their competition — the Jacksonville Jaguars would leapfrog them should both teams finish with the same record.

And, it seems they will have to do it without Antonio Brown.

Brown’s Injury status

Mike Tomlin wouldn’t comment on Brown’s injury after the game. The MVP candidate went down in the first half and did not return.

Brown was checked out on the sideline, then in the locker room, before being ruled out with what the team called a calf injury.

Tomlin told CBS at halftime that he didn’t expect Brown to return to the game, understandable given he wasn’t even able to put weight on his leg while seen on the sidelines.

But then this happened:

Rapoport noted that no surgery is needed and Brown hopes to be ready for the playoffs. Having a bye week will certainly help, but this is a major blow to the Steelers’ offense the rest of the way.

Brown came into the game leading the NFL with 99 catches and 15,09 receiving yards, reaching the end zone nine times. He left the game after just two catches for 24 yards, but it did put him over the 100-catch mark for the fifth-straight season, making him the first player in history to accomplish that feat.