Steelers' NFL playoff hopes are all but gone in loss to Dolphins
Steelers players streamed elatedly onto the field — the NFL could have fined nearly everyone, not just coach Mike Tomlin — as the impossible seemingly became reality before their disbelieving eyes.
Once, twice, three times and six overall, the ball exchanged hands on the final play of a game already lost, and somehow Antonio Brown ended up with it in the open field —- and in a footrace he was winning.
As Brown touched down in the end zone to complete what looked for a nanosecond to be a wondrous 79-yard scoring play , the clock at 0:00, the few thousand shivering fans remaining in Heinz Field reacted as if they'd just seen the second coming of the Immaculate Reception.
“I was in disbelief,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I thought we had scored.”
But in a Steelers season almost too bad to believe, it was too good to be true.
As Brown carried the football off the field, a souvenir of what would have been the most astonishing regular-season finish in Steelers history, his heart sank as he saw the officials waving that he'd stepped out of bounds at the 12.
Just like that the miracle was gone and, too, was the Steelers' season.
They seemingly had the right weather (snowy, 24 degrees) and the right opponent (the shivering Dolphins, fresh out of 80-degree Miami) to keep their season going.
Instead, their 34-28 loss Sunday at Heinz Field that 13,011 ticket holders managed to avoid assured them of a second non-winning season in a row and, almost certainly, their first successive seasons without a playoff appearance since they missed three in a row from 1999-2000.
“It's a game of inches,” left guard Ramon Foster said, relating how leads of 7-0, 21-17 and 28-24 slipped away against a Dolphins team seemingly ill-equipped to handle the wintry conditions.
He paused for a moment, then said, “It was a season of inches.”
And, at the moment, the Steelers (5-8) look to be miles away from being a Super Bowl team again. They're 13-16 since they went a combined 24-8 in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and there are holes everywhere.
Backup Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas (105 yards rushing, including a game-changing 55-yarder in the closing minutes) and tight end Charles Clay (seven catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns) found many of them, too.
Remarkably, it was the second time this season the Steelers lost a touchdown because one of their best players brushed the out-of-bounds line while running in the open field. Emmanuel Sanders was denied a 109-yard kickoff return against the Ravens on Oct. 20 because a sliver of his foot grazed the line, but at least the Steelers won that game.
If nothing else, this will be remembered as the season when the Steelers simply crossed the line too many times — most notably, Tomlin edging his foot inbounds as the Ravens' Jacoby Jones ran by him on a 73-yard kickoff return 10 days ago.
“We don't have enough time to be whining, pouting, talking about the season, talking about the playoffs,” cornerback Ike Taylor said.
Actually, they have all the time in the world, since they likely won't play another truly meaningful game for nine months. It's the first time they also were 5-8 since 2003, en route to a 6-10 finish, that they have virtually nothing to play for in their final three games.
Except, as safety Ryan Clark said, their jobs.
“I really haven't taken the time, obviously, to process it,” said Tomlin, whose team must win its final three for him to avoid his first losing season as a head coach. “We understood what was at stake. .. We understand the gravity of those moments.”
If nothing else, it gives team president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert more time to process what changes will be forthcoming, and there could be many.
Just like there were many chances for the Steelers to stay alive for at least one more week, with the first-place Bengals (9-4) coming to town on Sunday night.
They rallied from a 17-7 deficit to regain the lead at 21-17 on Roethlisberger's 43-yard touchdown pass to Brown and Troy Polamalu's third career regular-season interception return for a touchdown, a 19-yarder, in a span of 53 seconds in the third quarter.
But Ryan Tannehill, adapting well to his first snowy NFL day, came right back to find Clay on a 46-yard pass play with Cortez Allen in coverage, setting up his 4-yard TD throw to Brian Hartline.
The Steelers retook the lead on Jerricho Cotchery's team-high ninth touchdown, a 16-yard catch on the first play of the fourth quarter, but their offense effectively shut down after that.
At least until it was too late.
The Dolphins (7-6), their own season possibly hanging in the balance, answered with a game-winning 80-yard drive in which Thomas' cross-field, 55-yard run set up Tannehill's 12-yard scoring pass to Clay.
Miami, a team that hadn't scored more than 28 points despite playing in one of the NFL's most hospitable climates, went over 30 for the first time this season — and in the ninth-coldest game in franchise history.
Now, the Steelers can't even count on December weather being their friend any longer. The fans must have realized it, too; the crowd of 52,489 is believed to be the Steelers' second-smallest at Heinz Field.
In losing their third home game this season, the Steelers wasted:
• Roethlisberger's franchise-record 213th, 214th and 215th touchdown passes.
• Brown's five catches for 137 yards and his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
• Polamalu's first regular-season interception return touchdown against a team other than Cincinnati.
• Le'Veon Bell's 61 yards rushing and five catches.
• Two more Jason Worilds sacks.
• A disruptive game by Cam Heyward, who snow-plowed his way through the Dolphins offensive line all day.
“There was no emotional roller-coaster ride,” Tomlin said, a reference to realizing immediately that Brown had been ruled out of bounds on the final play.
And, now, there will be no ride to the playoffs, either.
It was just another lost game in a lost season by a franchise that has lost its winning way, and there doesn't appear to be any miracle fix forthcoming.