Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Steelers season at sudden death after loss to Saints
NEW ORLEANS — The Pittsburgh Steelers knew the stakes when they arrived at the Superdome, but quickly realized beating the New Orleans Saints required more than stopping Drew Brees.
They not only needed to avoid the voodoo but a phantom.
Flags went flying, only for no penalties to be called. And pass interference penalties were called on plays where there was little to no contact.
Knowing that Baltimore had beaten the Chargers on Saturday night to stay in the hunt for the AFC North title and that a loss could put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, the Steelers needed something heroic against the team with the best record in football.
Instead, they got a flashback that was a gut punch, followed by a fumble that felt even worse.
Pick and kick: For the second consecutive week, the Steelers won the coin toss and elected to receive. After they went three-and-out, Brees moved the Saints into Pittsburgh territory on four plays.
But the Saints got cute, using Brees as a decoy and having third-stringer Taysom Hill take a shot at the end zone only to see Steelers free safety Sean Davis intercept the ball.
Davis returned it to the 25, and drew another 15 yards on a penalty by Josh Hill for a horse-collar tackle.
The Steelers drove to the New Orleans 30 before P.J. Williams undercut Antonio Brown on a third-and-1. That forced a 49-yard field goal by Chris Boswell for a 3-0 lead.
And, for the second consecutive week, the Steelers used an interception to set up a field goal for a cushion against one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks.
Magnum PI: The Saints got a big play when Brees found Michael Thomas for a 28-yard pass over the middle, but the Steelers stopped Mark Ingram on a third-and-3 at the 36.
Facing a fourth-and-2, Brees scrambled and rolled right, throwing to Alvin Kamara in the end zone. As the ball sailed over Kamara, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden touched Kamara’s back and then leapt for the ball.
Haden barely made contact, certainly not enough to warrant pass interference. But to the Steelers’ astonishment, that was the call. The Saints got first-and-goal at the 1, and Mark Ingram scored on the next play for a 7-3 lead.
The Steelers would get some make-up calls — a Saints pass-interference penalty on Eli Apple on the ensuing drive was one — but the call against Haden was a momentum-changing play.
Drive time: The Steelers’ luck went from bad to worse when a punt was downed at their 8, only for a penalty to force another kick that was downed at the 3.
It only provided inspiration for an impressive scoring drive, as Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown on pass plays of 28, 10, 10 and 16 yards before drawing another PI penalty on Apple.
On third-and-goal at the 3, Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Jaylen Samuels. That was followed by a two-point conversion pass to Eli Rogers to tie the score at 14-14 with 40 seconds left.
Just when the Steelers appeared to have momentum, Brees responded by leading the Saints downfield with three passes. The highlight was a 31-yard catch-and-run by Kamara, who made Davis miss and then walked the tightrope to the 25 to set up a Will Lutz 43-yard field goal for a 17-14 halftime lead.
If the Saints didn’t show that no score was safe, opening the second half with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive was proof.
AB comes alive: Brown answered one of his worst statistical games — he had four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots — with a record-breaking performance.
Brown broke the team single-season record for touchdown receptions with his 14th on a 3-yard pass to cut it to 24-21 at 4:48 of the third quarter.
On the next series, Brown made a spectacular one-handed catch in the right corner of the end zone but didn’t drag his right foot. On the very next play, Brown got his 10oth catch of the season — marking his sixth consecutive year breaking the century mark — on a 20-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 28-24 lead. Brown became the first receiver in NFL history with six consecutive 100-catch seasons.
That Brown delivers in such moments is why he’s in the Pro Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger also bested his own team record for touchdown passes in a season, with 33.
When Big Ben and AB are connecting, the Steelers can play with anyone.
A fumble, a block and a stop: The Steelers’ season could have come down to a fumble. Instead, it was saved by a block.
On a third-and-2 at the Saints’ 34, the Steelers lined up with fullback Roosevelt Nix only to see Stevan Ridley fumble. A review upheld the call on the field, and the Saints got their shot at a fourth-quarter scoring drive.
But Lutz’s 50-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by L.J. Fort, and the Steelers had a chance to put the game away.
And they decided to go for it.
On fourth-and-5 at their 42, the Steelers called for a direct snap to Nix. He celebrated his run, signaling for a first down, only to see that officials ruled that he was stopped a yard short.
That gave Brees one more shot at the Steelers.
And, on fourth-and-2 at the Steelers 26, he threw incomplete but drew flags.
Pass interference, once again on Haden.
On a third-and-20, Brees found Ted Ginn Jr. for a 25-yard pass to the 7.
Two plays later, Brees threw to Michael Thomas, who caught the ball with his feet inside the goal line but fell back toward the 1. It was the same way the Steelers beat the Ravens to clinch the division title in 2008, with Santonio Holmes making a similar catch.
Upon review, the catch was ruled a touchdown and the Saints took a 31-28 lead.
The Steelers had one more shot, and it came down to a fourth-and-15 with 1:09 left. Roethlisberger rolled left and passed to Brown on the Saints sideline. Officials ruled it a catch at the 39, and a review confirmed that ruling.
So the Steelers got another shot. Big Ben hit JuJu Smith-Schuster over the middle for 14 yards, then spiked to stop the clock with 45 seconds left. The next pass fell incomplete but drew a flag. No, it wasn’t pass interference. Linebacker Alex Anzalone drew contact with Vance McDonald, a 5-yard penalty.
The Steelers still had a chance at a game-tying field goal when Smith-Schuster caught a pass on the next play, but fumbled as he attempted to roll out of a tackle. The Saints recovered to secure the 31-28 victory.
And the Steelers’ season is down to sudden death.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.