Posted on December 18, 2017, by Travis Pulver
When the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an injury early in the AFC Championship game last season, it was a bad sign. Sure enough, they struggled to run the ball and lost the game, 36-17. But heading into Week 15’s rematch with the Patriots at home, everyone was healthy. Maybe this time around, things would be different and the Steelers would come out on top.
Maybe they would have if everyone had remained healthy throughout the game.
Early in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger tried to connect with Antonio Brown on what would have been a 25-yard touchdown pass. But Brown was not able to make the catch. But even worse, was unable to get off the ground after taking a hard hit during the play.
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He needed help to get off the field but did not need the cart. Not being taken off on a cart is usually a good thing. But it was evident with how he could not put any weight on one leg the injury was bad news. Initially, his return was ruled questionable. But eventually, the team decided to take him to the hospital for additional testing, making him out for the game.
They couldn’t make up for the loss of Bell last year. But they made a valiant effort to get by without Brown. JuJu Smith-Schuster finished the day with six receptions for 116 yards. Martavis Bryant had a productive day as well (four receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown) as did Le’Veon Bell (five receptions for 48 yards).
Bell also gave the Steelers a run game they sorely missed last year with 117 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Ben Roethlisberger had a good day completing 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
Everything was trending Pittsburgh’s way in the first two quarters despite the injury to Brown. At the half, the Steelers were up 17-10. But in the second half, they were faced with overcoming a tremendous obstacle few have ever managed to beat. They had to deal with a determined and focused Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Brady ended up completing 22 of 35 passes on the night for 298 yards and a touchdown (along with one interception). Gronkowski caught nine of the 13 passes thrown his way for 168 yards. But as good as Brady and Gronk were, and despite losing Antonio Brown early, the Steelers had a chance to win late in the game.
With less than a minute to play and the Ball on the 21-yard line, the Steelers had a lot of ground to cover to get into field goal range. They got most of it when JuJu Smith-Schuster slid through the Patriots defense for a 69-yard gain.
Now they had the ball at the Patriots ten-yard line with 34 seconds to play. They had time to go for the win before settling for a field goal and overtime. They appeared to get the win when Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James on a ten-yard touchdown pass. But in the replay, it as apparent the ball moved as James hit the ground.
So, it was ruled incomplete.
No big deal, right? So, they kick the field goal and head to overtime. But with 28 seconds left, the Steelers wanted to go for the win. After a quick pass, it looked like they were going to spike it and kick the field goal.
But Roethlisberger tried to hit Eli Rogers on a quick slant through the heart of the Patriots defense instead. The ball was batted into the air and intercepted by Duron Harmon. Game over; New England wins, 27-24.
Football fans and former players were understandably upset after the game and believed James made the catch that should have given the Steelers the win.
“We were inside of two minutes, and in order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” game official Tony Corrente said afterward (ESPN). “In this case, he had control of the football, but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate, and the ball hit the ground, and that’s the end of it at that point.”
This play will kick-start another conversation about what is and is not a catch. But what Steelers fans are more concerned with is the health of Antonio Brown. According to news reports, he suffered a partially torn calf muscle and will be out for the remainder of the regular season. Would he have made a difference against the Patriots? Probably– but we’ll have to wait until the AFC Championship to find out.
They expect him to be back for the playoffs. In the meantime, they’ll lean on JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant to pick up the slack. They finish the regular season against the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns.
Tom Brady and the Patriots still have a pair of challenging but winnable games ahead. Next week they’ll face a Buffalo team trying to remain in the playoff hunt. They finish the regular season against the New York Jets on New Year’s Eve. They’ll have to win out in order to remain the No. 1 seed