NEW ORLEANS — The football — and possibly the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ playoff hopes — bounced off of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf.
JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s fumble in the open field with 32 seconds left sealed the New Orleans Saints‘ 31-28 win that knocked Pittsburgh a half-game behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North standings.
It was a devastating play for a receiver who has been tremendous all season.
But devastating losses and plays have one of the league’s most talented teams sitting at 8-6-1, thanks to three December losses by three points. The Steelers were driving into scoring range when linebacker Demario Davis recovered the ball at the New Orleans 35-yard line.
“For it to come down like this every week, it sucks,” said Smith-Schuster, who finished with 115 yards on 11 catches but was clearly dejected in the locker room, sitting in his uniform well after many teammates had showered.
The Steelers knew their playoff hopes hinged largely on what happened in New Orleans, and on Sunday, they played like it. They were desperate, inspired, bold, exciting.
They weren’t perfect, though. That’s about what it took to beat the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In arguably their gutsiest performance of the season, a wild game from start to finish, the Steelers couldn’t overcome a handful of mistakes against a team this good.
The Steelers would be dangerous in these playoffs. But a Week 1 tie in Cleveland and a Week 14 loss in Oakland probably put their playoff hopes to bed. Now they need Baker Mayfield‘s magic in a Week 17 game at Baltimore to force the Ravens into relinquishing the divisional lead. The Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
Coach Mike Tomlin’s decision to fake a punt with 4:06 left backfired, and surely will be questioned. The Steelers were at their own 42 on fourth-and-5 when fullback Roosevelt Nix took the snap and bulldozed over the middle, nearly getting to the first-down mark.
Running back Stevan Ridley‘s fumble on the previous drive slowed the Steelers’ magma-hot offense. The defense gave up a third-and-20 in the final minutes.
“You’ve got to give that team credit … They made their share of plays, and we didn’t quite make enough,” safety Morgan Burnett said.
Added wide receiver Antonio Brown: “Can’t make no excuses. Have to find a way to put ourselves in a better position.”
The game won’t be without controversy. In a game this close, the image of Joe Haden gently patting Alvin Kamara on the back in coverage of a first-quarter pass that neither had a chance at catching will fume Steelers fans for days. Haden’s penalty, a highly questionable call at best, turned a would-be stop on fourth-and-2 into a 33-yard penalty to the Saints’ 1-yard line, which Mark Ingram converted into a rushing score.
Or, there’s that fourth-and-2 interference call on Haden in the final minutes that looked debatable. Haden broke up a pass but officials called him for grabbing from behind.
Haden couldn’t hide his frustration after the game.
“It is what it is, man. It’s an offensive game,” Haden said. “You can’t touch these guys.”
On offense, Pittsburgh turned to the two players who have won clutch games for the team many times before — Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, who dazzled in the second half as Pittsburgh went to an near-all-passing attack.
Roethlisberger was near-flawless with 380 yards on 33-of-50 passing and three touchdowns, and Brown continued to spin around Marcus Lattimore for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches.
Between the second and third quarters, the Steelers’ offense broke off scoring drives of 97, 75 and 66 yards with only five rushing attempts, none in the third quarter.
In what might be his throw of the season, Roethlisberger split two defenders with a back-of-the-end-zone dart to a streaking Brown late in the third quarter.
And the game had tilted Pittsburgh’s way when linebacker L.J. Fort blocked New Orleans’ field goal attempt with 6:13 left to protect a 28-24 lead. The Saints were moving the ball swiftly, but Pittsburgh locked up inside the 40. The Steelers got three impressive second-half stops on one of the game’s best offenses.
It wasn’t enough.
And without much-needed hope and some luck in Week 17, the Steelers will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“The story’s not written yet. I told the guys in there — I said, ‘Listen, it’s not over yet; this chapter of the story’s not done,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously we don’t control it, but let’s see what happens.”