Mehno: Rotten ending to tremendous game

Commentary

PITTSBURGH–It was Tom Brady vs. Ben Roethlisberger, a match-up of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Yet the takeaway from their showdown game is an endless discussion of NFL replay policy.

That’s a shame, because the New England Patriots’ 27-24 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday afternoon was as good a football game as the NFL has seen this season.

Big plays by big-time players, plenty of tension and drama, a constant back-and-forth that would challenge the strongest of constitutions.

Yet it all came to a touchdown that wasn’t, a seemingly nitpicky call that turned the outcome in favor of the Patriots.

So let’s deal with the pragmatic reality of that outcome. The Steelers probably forfeited the chance to host the AFC Championship game. If they get that far, and if the Patriots make their customary appearance, the game will be played in New England.

The people who own North Shore restaurants and hotels could be heard sobbing above the profane cries of the people who left the stadium thinking a Steeler named Jesse James had been robbed.

If you didn’t see the play live, you’ve probably seen at least one of the 2,753 replays that have run since then.

After falling behind on a Patriots’ touchdown drive that shouldn’t have happened, the Steelers appeared to be headed for a miracle comeback in the final minute.

Ben Roethlisberger’s simple pass to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster turned into a spectacular 69-yard gain that put the ball at the Patriots’ 10.

It was at that point when a fabulous football game turned into an exercise in pedantry.

Roethlisberger found tight end Jesse James over the middle. James caught the pass, then made a dive for the end zone.

Touchdown? Well, it was for a few minutes as replay procedures kicked in. At the end of the review, it was announced that because James had not maintained possession of the ball after he hit the turf, the pass was incomplete.

The Steelers still had three downs and 38 seconds to get into the end zone. A pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey gained 3 yards, and he was unable to get out of bounds.

The Steelers lined up and Roethlisberger faked a clock-killing spike. Then he threw the ball to a spot populated by three defenders. Two of them got their hands on the ball. Intended receiver Eli Rogers didn’t.

Duron Harmon batted the ball, Eric Rowe intercepted it and that was the game.

The NFL and referee Tony Corrente each issued detailed statements on what happened with the James non-catch. Letter of the law, they seem to be right. You can argue that the rule needs to be changed, but that’s an issue that will be confronted in March rather than December.

It’s a mistake to pin the outcome of the game on that call. The Patriots never should have scored the go-ahead touchdown, but Sean Davis couldn’t intercept a pass that was thrown directly to him. That was the same Sean Davis who couldn’t handle Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski throughout the second half. Gronkowski gobbled yardage like a glutton at a buffet.

But the overturned TD was a rotten ending to a tremendous game.

“That was a heck of a roller coaster,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said.

Complete with the sick feeling when the ride ended.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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