Judging by the mood afterward in the Steelers’ locker room, where cornerback Artie Burns sat in front of his stall, still in full uniform, looking at everyone and no one, they all hurt the same. New England and Pittsburgh are both 11-3, the Patriots now own the No. 1 seed by claiming the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“Obviously the Patriots are the team to beat,” offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “They’ve proven year in and year out that they dominate the A.F.C., and for us, if we want to accomplish our goals, we’re going to have to beat them at some point. We had a pretty good chance today.”
The Steelers had been waiting 11 months for Sunday, ever since the Patriots flattened them in the A.F.C. championship game in New England, a result that precipitated an organizational reckoning of sorts.
Pittsburgh spent the off-season assessing the optimal defensive strategy to stifle Tom Brady and stressing the importance of facing New England this season in the playoffs — because it was going to happen, players said — at home, instead of at Gillette Stadium. The Steelers’ coach, Mike Tomlin, even went so far as telling Tony Dungy on NBC three weeks ago that he considered Sunday’s game a mere preamble to a probable A.F.C. championship rematch.
The Steelers knew that the only way to prove they could beat the Patriots in January was to beat them on Sunday. Pittsburgh led by 7 points at halftime, by 8 after three quarters, and by 5 with less than a minute remaining.
Even if the Steelers did not think they had the game won then — not with Brady capable of throttling their defense, as he did, commanding a marvelous 77-yard drive capped by Dion Lewis’s 8-yard touchdown with 56 seconds remaining — they did when Ben Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James for what was ruled a 10-yard touchdown.
What constitutes a catch seems to confound coaches and players, fans and commentators, every week. Even in a video released by the N.F.L. Sunday night, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, began his explanation of why the play was reversed — why it was incomplete — by saying, “As we can see here, Roethlisberger completes the pass.”
He did. James, while lunging to his left, caught the ball around the Patriots’ 2-yard line. His left knee touched the ground, and as he extended the ball over the goal line, the ball came loose. As far as disputed receptions go, this ventured nowhere near Dez Bryant’s negated touchdown in the playoffs three years ago. The rule dictates that the receiver must, in official parlance, survive going to ground. That is, James needs to maintain control of the ball through the entirety of the catch, which he did not.
“The ball hit the ground,” the referee Tony Corrente told a pool reporter, “and that’s the end of it at that point.”
From the officials’ standpoint, yes. But not from that of the Steelers, who remained equal parts livid and perplexed by a rule that, in practice, made little sense.
“I don’t work in that department,” James said. “I just play football. We thought it was a catch.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose 69-yard catch-and-run preceded James’s incompletion, used an expletive to describe the call before saying, “I think he scored and that was it.”
Roethlisberger at first said he would not comment on the play. But a few minutes later he mentioned that he thought James had scored because “he crossed the plane before the ball hit the ground.”
Said Tomlin: “I’m not going to cry over spilled milk and all that crap and talk about replay. I ain’t doing it.”
Perhaps because, as Tomlin surely knows, that was not the singular moment that consigned the Steelers to defeat.
Had they conjured a scheme to neutralize Rob Gronkowski, succeeding where most others have failed, instead of allowing him to Gronk his way to 69 of his 168 receiving yards on that crushing late scoring drive, the Steelers might have won.
And had they been aligned on the last snap, instead of scrambling to run a play, they might have at worst set up a field-goal attempt to push the game into overtime.
Two plays after the reversal, on 3rd-and-goal from the New England 7-yard line with 9 seconds left, Roethlisberger went to the line of scrimmage having communicated that he would spike the ball to stop the clock. But he received late notice through the speaker in his helmet from offensive coordinator Todd Haley that the Steelers wanted to try to score a touchdown. Without a timeout or sufficient time to change the call, Roethlisberger signaled to receiver Eli Rogers, who ran a slant, and then fired a pass that was deflected by cornerback Eric Rowe into the arms of teammate Duron Harmon.
“We’re not going to look back and second-guess anything or anybody,” Roethlisberger said.
With two games left, the Steelers must compartmentalize and regroup, and handle the potential absence of Brown, who, according to multiple reports, will miss at least the rest of the regular season with a partly torn left calf muscle. They missed him in the second half Sunday, but they hope to need him in five weeks, in an A.F.C. championship game that New England is likely to host yet again.
“We’ll definitely see them again,” Rogers said, “and the outcome will be different.”
Maybe, maybe not. The Steelers are embracing a reprise of Sunday’s classic contest — well, without all the bad things.