While it is nice and all to be able to say that you defeated the New England Patriots in a meaningful game, it ultimately doesn’t hold a whole lot of value in a vacuum. The Pittsburgh Steelers got the Tom Brady monkey off their back this past year in a sense in that they were able to defeat him and his Patriots 17-10 in Week 15.
But it’s the Patriots who made it to the postseason and who will be competing for a sixth Lombardi trophy this weekend and not Pittsburgh. This is in spite of the fact that they still controlled their own playoff destiny heading into the final two weeks of the season. All they had to do was, you know, go into New Orleans and beat the Saints.
And the thing is, they not only very nearly did, they should have. Arguably, even after the defense gave up a late lead, they still should have at least been able to force overtime. There were things that went against them in that game that were outside of their control, but they still had the opportunity to snatch a victory.
We might as well start with the elephant in the room, which was the phantom defensive pass interference call that came in the first half, called against Joe Haden in the end zone. Though the league admitted it shouldn’t have been flagged—it wasn’t even catchable—the fourth-down play instead of resulting in a turnover on downs put the Saints on the one-yard line, and they quickly scored.
They didn’t stop the Steelers from coming back and taking the lead, and in fact they led for much of the game, including late in the fourth quarter. The defense even had the Saints and Drew Brees in some very unfavorable circumstances. A DPI converted a fourth and two on their go-ahead drive, and later they gave up a 25-yard gain on third and 20.
Yet still, the Steelers got the ball back with 85 seconds to spare and trailing by a field goal. They were moving down the field well after being forced to convert early on the drive on fourth and 15, Ben Roethlisberger hitting Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster for 19 and 14 yards into Saints territory with 45 seconds still to play.
Their final play game at the 42-yard line with 41 seconds to play. Roethlisberger connected with Smith-Schuster again for a seven-yard gain that put the Steelers into field goal range, but before the wide receiver could get down, the Saints defense stripped the ball loose and recovered.
This was after a previous fumble by Stevan Ridley on third and two early in the fourth quarter. You can’t turn the ball over twice in the fourth quarter in a one-possession game against the highest-scoring team in the league in their own dome and expect to win.
And of course, they did just that, and lost. And with the loss, they also lost control of their win-and-in scenario. They won a week later, but were still left out because they didn’t get the results they needed from other teams.