The controversial, yet thrilling, final minute of action at Heinz Field was initially befuddling to even CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo Sunday evening.
After Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski charged down the field for a touchdown and a two-point conversion, Ben Roethlisberger had less than a minute to respond with a scoring drive of his own. From the kickoff, Romo was under the impression that the Steelers would try to kick a field goal and tie the game at 27-27.
“Here we go,” Romo said. “One timeout. You got 52 seconds. Realistically, the 42-yard line is the point you want to get it to. Your kicker’s fantastic, you got to trust him here. First down, you’re looking for probably 10-15 yards.”
“There’s no handoffs in this whole drive,” he continued. “Everything has to be a little bit of a chunk, almost 10-15 yards, or one big play.”
Well, Pittsburgh’s Juju Smith-Schuster provided the latter. The wide receiver caught the ball on his own 20-yard line, before running down the field for a 69-yard gain.
“Across the middle, Smith-Schuster, running for that sideline, taking as much as he can,” Nantz said on the play-by-play call. “And he breaks away! Now he cuts it up the middle, still on his feet! … All the way to the 10-yard line. 69 yards!”
“That was incredible,” Romo said. “The rookie Smith-Schuster. I can’t believe that just happened.”
Little did he know that the next play was going to be even more unbelievable. The Steelers used their last timeout with 34 seconds remaining, in order to set up what they thought would be a game-winning play.
“I’m throwing the ball in the end zone,” Romo said.
The Steelers did just that. Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James for what was initially ruled a touchdown, giving his team a 30-27 lead with under 30 seconds remaining.
“Caught! Touchdown! Pittsburgh!” Nantz said. “Two plays, they take it the distance.”
Neither sportscaster took issue with the call after the first replay.
“Look at James,” Romo said. “Smith-Schuster is going to roll off the safety, and James is right in front of him. He’s down, but no one touches him, so he’s going to get in the end zone. This is going to stand, unless he gets touched.”
“No, he’s in,” Nantz added. “He never got touched.”
As the CBS broadcast replayed the catch a few more times, the pair continued to laud Roethlisberger for his “drive of the year” before discussing what’s next for both teams. The thought of the touchdown possibly being overturned had still not yet been entertained by either sportscaster.
“And now there’s going to be an extra-point try to make the margin four,” Nantz said. “It’s crucial because you still have New England on its side with two timeouts and 28 seconds. You want to take the field goal out of play for the Patriots by knocking in the point after.”
“They are verifying it upstairs, and there’s no doubt that it’s going to hold up,” he continued.
“No one touches him,” Romo corroborated. “That’s going to stand.”
Ninety seconds after James’ catch, however, Nantz noticed that the referees were taking a bit longer than normal to assess the play. Despite the extended review, he still maintained that he thought the ruling on the field was correct — primarily due to the fact that he thought they were reviewing whether James was down before the goal line.
“I don’t know why this is taking so long to review because clearly Harmon is nowhere close to him,” he said. “Unless, they’re looking at the football. Did it wiggle or anything to the ground? That looks like a touchdown to me.”
Then it clicked.
“Are they looking at the football possibly? Losing control?” Nantz said, interrupting his colleague’s commentary on Le’Veon Bell’s role in the previous play.
“Oh, that’s what it is, Jim!” Romo said. “They don’t think he caught it. Oh boy! Let’s see that again. That’s exactly right.”
After a couple more interjections of “Ohhhhh,” the pair had finally caught on.
“It moved though, right?” Romo said. “You saw it move.”
“It definitely moved,” Nantz said. “Did he have enough control through the play?”
After hearing the referees’ decision to overturn the touchdown, both understood the rationale.
“Based on the rule, I think they made the right call,” Romo said. “But it’s just a back-breaker for Pittsburgh.”