Controversial catch rule, conservative offense sting Steelers in AFC showdown

The score: New England 27, Pittsburgh 24

The bottom line: Like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, the NFL’s ridiculous “process of the catch” rule reared its ugly head again at the most inopportune time for the Steelers and their fans as a game- and bye-clinching apparent touchdown catch by Jesse James was wiped off the board and followed a few plays later by an ill-advised Ben Roethlisberger pass that resulted in a last-second Patriots interception and a crushing and costly defeat. The Steelers played and coached a near-perfect game for 56 minutes, but went into an offensive shell on their last two drives and dropped not one, but two, chances to win the game. The result means Pittsburgh must play hard to the finish line to preserve a first-round bye and that if they’re going to win a seventh Lombardi Trophy, they’ll likely have to do it by winning in New England.

The real bottom line: Seeing Ryan Shazier upright in the owner’s box Sunday was the most pleasant of surprises and the only thing that truly matters about Sunday’s festivities. All the rest is just a game, a great one being ruined by greed and stupidity, but a game nonetheless.

It was over when…: With Tony Romo loudly and correctly imploring Ben Roethlisberger to throw a fade pattern on 3rd-and-goal with just seconds left, the gun-slinging QB tried to zip a slant pattern through traffic to Eli Rogers. The pass was tipped and intercepted, a soul-crushing dagger for a team and fan base that were celebrating what they thought was a demon-exorcising win just a few seconds earlier.

Play of the day: Nope, not that one. With 2:06 remaining, Cam Heyward made what could have been the play of his career, bull rushing Tom Brady, nearly stripping the football but causing a wounded duck that floated right to safety Sean Davis. THAT is the play you have to make to beat the Patriots and exorcist the demons! That play. Davis dropped the ball. Brady took the Pats down the field for a go-ahead score in 70 seconds.

Other play of the day: Since this will be discussed non-stop for the next eleventy billion hours, we’ll be brief. The “process of the catch” rule is stupid. It was stupid when it took a TD away from Calvin Johnson. It was stupid when it cost the Cowboys a playoff win. And it was stupid Sunday when it took away Jesse James TD. If there was absolute and certain video evidence that James lost possession of the ball, even for a split second, when he hit the ground, no matter if he was touched, no matter if he already crossed the goal line, then the stupid rule was applied correctly. The only thing we’ll say after watching the play a bunch more times is we’re not sure there was absolute evidence he lost possession. As we’ve noted many times, slow mo makes things look like a loss of possession that wouldn’t even get a second look in real time.

Player of the game: As always, Rob Gronkowski. Just an indefensible beast. The only way to beat him is to not put yourself in a position to let him beat you.

Playoff picture:

+ The Patriots now have the inside track for the top seed in the AFC if they win out at home against the Bills and Jets.

+ The Steelers are now the #2 seed in the AFC with only a one-game lead over Jacksonville, who would control a head-to-head tiebreaker against Pittsburgh. Jags all of a sudden have a tough one next week at San Francisco and Jimmy Garoppolo and then finish with a tough division game at Tennessee.

+ While we weren’t paying attention Sunday, the Bills leap-frogged the Ravens for the #6 spot in the AFC, but obviously face a tough task hanging onto that spot with a trip to New England in the offing.

+ The most likely scenario unfolding is Baltimore at Jacksonville and Tennessee at Kansas City in the Wild Card round with Pittsburgh #2 and New England #1 waiting. Under that scenario, Baltimore is the only team the Steelers could not play in the Division Round. If seeds held in the Wild Card games, Jacksonville would come to Pittsburgh and Kansas City would go to New England and we are of the opinion that is a best-case scenario for the Steelers. It would be very difficult for the Jags to beat the Steelers twice (see Miami in 2016) and KC would have a puncher’s chance at New England with the explosive weapons in their offense.

Hot topics:

+ A realist might look at that game and say Pittsburgh gave New England all it could handle without Antonio Brown, Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier and likely would have two of those guys back if they meet them again. The final step, though, for Pittsburgh in winning that rematch is someone stepping up to put a dagger in Brady in the fourth quarter. Sean Davis had that chance Sunday and wasn’t up to the task this time.

+ The Steelers also had a chance to put a fork in the Patriots with their offense on the field during the game’s final four minutes and could do nothing on two drives with the lead. To us, the 2nd-and-23 draw to Fitzgerald Touissant was the play that sticks out like a sore thumb. A team that wants to win the game with its offense is trying to get 10 yards back there. A draw to Le’Veon Bell? Absolutely. But to Fitzy? Not so much.

+ Juju Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers all played well Sunday and all now have a chance to get better with Antonio Brown out for the rest of the regular season. Smith-Schuster needs reps and to get beyond a nagging hamstring injury, Bryant needs to continue building his confidence and Rogers needs to find the chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger he had last year. All three will get a chance.

+ Perhaps the biggest positive in that game for the Steelers was the pressure they were able to get on Tom Brady rushing just four players and that included consistent big plays from all three linemen (Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave). It’s amazing that those same guys could not get any pressure on Jacoby Brissett a month ago against the worst offensive line in football.

In the booth:

+ If you do not appreciate Tony Romo after that game, you never will and probably can’t get past his Cowboys connection. He was unbelievable. At one point, he actually diagrammed a live play in real time, showed where the defenders were matching up, where the Steelers safeties would move to and where Brady would look to throw the ball and then with his pen marks still on the screen, that’s exactly what happened! Sure, he’s somewhat of a goofball and his chemistry with Nantz seems a little forced, but those are small potatoes compared to the football knowledge.

+ It’s very interesting to see how Romo’s brain works during a two-minute drill compared to how Ben Roethlisberger’s brain works. And that’s all we have to say about that.

Game mismanagement:

+ In another positive development, that was probably Mike Tomlin’s best game management outing of the season, excellent with his timeouts throughout, even the one they had to burn early in the second half to preserve makeable down-and-distance.

+ We can’t say the same for what went through Ben Roethlisberger’s head on the game’s final series. After the second down swing pass to Darius Heyward-Bey didn’t get out of bounds, Roethlisberger motioned that he wanted a spike. He later told reporters he wanted to preserve “one more play.” But that play would have been a fourth-down field goal attempt. The “one play” he wanted was third down, which he was preparing to give up on until the sideline correctly intervened. So while Romo was (correctly) yelling to get back to the line and throw a fade route, Roethlisberger was thinking about spiking the ball for another chance he didn’t really have. It’s no wonder he then forced the ball into coverage. Love the guy. He was just so good for most of the game Sunday, but he just doesn’t have a head for strategy.

Zebra hunting:

+ Honestly, that was a much better outcome than we might have expected from a crew that throws the most flags in the league. They were obviously restrained Sunday and the critical hold on Ali Villanueva was really the only thing to quibble about. The mess at the end? That’s on the NFL, not the officials trying to uphold the dumb rule.

Sweet tweets:

+ @jimbrady: I wish I was a fan of either of these teams. It must be fun. (Blogger’s note: Mr. Brady is ESPN’s ombudsman and a long-suffering Jets fans. Never forget how lucky we have been and continue to be to witness so many classic football games and moments.)

+ @IRNCTYMNE: My poor neighbors. (Blogger’s note: Ditto. And wife. And dogs. And cats.)

Next week: The Steelers get an extra day’s rest before their second straight Christmas Day game in a row, this year at Houston at 4:30 p.m. Monday. The Texans will trot out third-stringer T.J. Yates at quarterback, but Pittsburgh still has to figure out how to cover DeAndre Hopkins, who’s entered the discussion with Julio Jones and Dez Bryant as to who is the second best receiver in football.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)