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Patriots beat Steelers again, this time with some help from the officials

Jesse James caught what should have been the game-winning TD pass—that is, until the officials took it off of the scoreboard.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re ever curious about why Steelers Nation detests the New England Patriots, Sunday’s 27-24 defeat incorporated just about every possible example. In a game where Pittsburgh appeared to do nearly everything right (e.g. Ben Roethlisberger playing one of his best games; zero turnovers by the offense—save the play that sealed the deal; and a great performance by Le’Veon Bell), New England still walked out of Heinz Field with the win. In the process, the Patriots took what should have been the Black-and-gold’s greatest triumph of the season and left ashes in their Christmas stockings.

Robbing the Outlaw

Perhaps someone more knowledgeable in the official NFL rule book can explain why the apparent Jesse James game-winning TD catch with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter was overturned, ultimately costing the Steelers a hard-fought victory. The replay clearly shows that James had possession of the ball when it broke the plane of the end-zone line. Both play-by-play announcers, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, initially declared the play an obvious TD.

What the replay does not show clearly, though, is whether James actually lost control of the ball when he hit the ground. If he was bobbling the ball in his hands—hence the movement we saw on the replay—but his hand was still underneath the ball at the time, it should have been ruled a TD. And because the officials on the field initially ruled the play a TD, they would have needed conclusive evidence on film that the ball hit the ground while not in James’ possession.

As yet, though, we still haven’t seen conclusive evidence. For a call of this magnitude, you’d certainly expect such evidence to be essential to overturn the officials’ call on the field. Furthermore, how many times have we seen ball-carriers extend their arms out at the pylon, having their plays ruled touchdowns, even when they’ve lost control of the ball afterwards?

Bump in the road

But, of course, this ruling is precisely the kind of Twilight Zone oddity that tends to occur whenever Pittsburgh plays New England. Once those six points had been taken off of the board, the ill-advised throw by Ben—which wound up as a game-ending pick in the end zone—was entirely anti-climactic.

As hard to take as losing this game might have been, though, it doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers are still AFC North champions and most likely will be appearing in their second consecutive AFC title game about a month from now versus these same slippery Patriots. The especially bad thing about this game is that it cost the Steelers the services of the league’s No. 1 receiver for an undetermined period of time, in addition to reinforcing the psychological impact of yet another mission not accomplished versus New England. Under these circumstances, it’s pitiful that the game would boil down to this kind of dubious, official ruling.

Any thoughts of payback we might have now, though, will have to wait until the Black-and-gold meet the Pats in yet another battle to decide which team goes to the Super Bowl. For the present, and in addition to the nullified play by James, the Steelers and their fans will need to ponder how a couple of near-misses in the fourth quarter enabled the Pats to stay in the game and set the stage for its crazy and horrendous ending. First, Sean Davis dropped what looked like a sure interception on the Pats’ final TD drive of the game—a pick which would have sealed New England’s doom. Then, JuJu Smith-Schuster came up 10 yards short of pay dirt on a thrilling, 69-yard catch and run with 52 seconds remaining in the game, leading directly to the no-TD call on the play by James.

In the end, however, it was the same old story, merely with a different twist in the plot. But despite the deep disappointment coursing through Steelers Nation in the wake of this defeat, there also was plenty to like in the Steelers’ gutty performance. Even without their top receiver, Pittsburgh showed they could keep up with Tom Brady and his No. 1 offense. Le’Veon Bell ripped the Pats’ defense for 165 yards (117 rushing and 48 receiving). In the absence of Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster was Pittsburgh’s leading receiver with 114 yards on six catches. Depending on the severity of Brown’s injury, and despite the fact he’s irreplaceable by any mortal, No. 19 might nevertheless prove capable of stepping in without the offense suffering too great a disadvantage. Martavis Bryant also improved his play, catching four passes for 59 yards including a one-handed TD grab to cap a 15-play, 78-yard scoring drive as the clock wound down in the second quarter.

A team to be proud of

At this point, the health of some key Steelers—chiefly including Brown and Joe Haden—looks like the most serious issue confronting the team moving forward. Pittsburgh certainly did enough in this very tough loss to demonstrate that—this season—they’re definitely on a par with the defending champs. If the anticipated AFC Championship matchup comes to pass next month, and regardless of whether it involves another trip to Gillette Stadium, we’ve still got to like the chances for the Black-and-gold to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. But their success in doing this will definitely depend on turning in another performance very much like the one we saw on Sunday at Heinz Field. For a substantial portion of this game, the Steelers were dominating play. And regardless of the way it ended, the Black-and-gold can hold heir heads high, putting this game behind them while preparing for the challenges ahead.

If Pittsburgh’s 14 regular-season games have proven anything, it’s that there’s not a single ounce of quit in these 2017 Steelers. Even in defeat, the electrifying 69-yard play by Smith-Schuster—at a point in the game when hope appeared to be fading—should put the Patriots and the entire NFL on notice that this is a team you can never count out. And that’s exactly the resilience they’ll need for success in their upcoming playoff games.