You could hear a pin drop in the Pittsburgh locker room Sunday evening.
But there was much to be said after the Patriots miraculously held on for a 27-24 win over the Steelers. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tight end Jesse James appeared to have connected for the potentially game-winning touchdown, but following a review of the play, referees overturned the original call that the reception was indeed a catch.
“In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” referee Tony Corrente explained. “In this case, he had control of the football, but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate, and the ball hit the ground, and that was the end of it at that point.”
“He must maintain control of the football,” added the league’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron. “He does put the ball over the goal line extended. Once he gets there, he loses control of the football and then the ball hits the ground.”
After the ruling on the field was changed to an incomplete pass, Roethlisberger hit wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey for a three-yard gain with 28 seconds left on the clock. As time continued to expire, the Steelers proceeded to run their no-huddle offense — seemingly faking a spike to try and go for another game-winning touchdown.
Roethlisberger’s intended pass for wide receiver Eli Rogers was intercepted in the end zone by safety Duron Harmon, however, sealing the game for the Patriots.
“Man, it would have been fun for it to have turned out a different way,” Roethlisberger said after the game.
With a victory at their fingertips — and the score the closest it has ever come within the past winless five years against New England — much of Pittsburgh was undoubtedly upset about the controversially overturned call.
“It sucks, honestly,” said wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose 69-yard catch and run in the final minute put the Steelers in scoring position. “That was a bullshit ass call by the refs. I feel like he had ball control. He was in. In a game like that, when you go down and you finish the game like that… And the next thing you know [the ref] said he didn’t have control of the ball… Nobody touched him.”
“I’m sick about it. I’ll be thinking about this the rest of the night,” James added. “I had my knee down, turned up the field. Whether they consider that a football move or not is up to them to decide. I guess I don’t know a lot of things about football. I thought it was a touchdown for sure.”
James also referenced a catch by teammate Ryan Grimble against the Cincinnati Bengals last season. The tight end felt as though the two plays were similar in nature, yet Grimble’s was deemed a touchdown while his was ruled incomplete.
— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) December 18, 2017
The implications of a win go beyond just improving the team’s record at this point. The Steelers, who lost their top receiver Antonio Brown in the second quarter to a calf injury, could have clinched a first-round bye with a victory over the Patriots. A win also would have put them in the best position to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Although his players were expressly upset about the loss, head coach Mike Tomlin offered a different perspective during his postgame press conference. Calling his feelings “irrelevant,” Tomlin neglected to complain about the result.
“It’s really irrelevant how I feel about it, to be honest with you,” he told reporters. “It’s not going to change the outcome of the game. I’m not going to cry about spilled milk and all of that crap and talk about replay. I ain’t doing that.”
The Steelers had the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, but elected to try and go for the outright lead with a passing play on the fly.
“We play to win,” said Tomlin, who is 2-7 against the Patriots in his career.
Roethlisberger, on the other hand, expressed after the game that he would have preferred to stop the clock in order to set up the final play.
“I was yelling ‘Clock it,'” the quarterback said. “It felt like that was the thing to do: clock it and get yourself one play. But it came from the sidelines: ‘Don’t clock it. Don’t clock it.’”
“At that time, everyone thinks it’s getting clocked, so you don’t have time to try to get everyone lined up,” he continued, explaining why the play looked like a fake spike. “I saw Eli try and run a quick slant in there, and at that time, you’ve just got to try to make a play. I probably didn’t make a good enough throw.”
If both teams advance through the postseason, Pittsburgh will likely get a rematch against New England in the AFC Championship — a matchup that Tom Brady has encountered, and won, three times in his career.
“We’ll see them again, and the outcome will be different,” Rogers said.