By Scott Brown
December 8, 2013
If Antonio Brown could have stayed in bounds, the Steelers would have pulled off a miracle win. (CBS/NFL)
PITTSBURGH -- A play that came within inches of going down in Steelers lore with the "Immaculate Reception" instead stands as a microcosm for a season that all but ended on a day when Heinz Field turned into a snow globe -- and a couple of unlikely players turned an expected defensive struggle into a shootout.
The Steelers came up just 12 yards short of a touchdown that would have been even more miraculous than the one Franco Harris scored more than 25 years ago in a playoff game that helped launch the dynastic Steelers teams that ruled the 1970s.
Sideline footwork promises to again be one of the topics of discussion following the Steelers 34-28 come-from-ahead loss to the Dolphins. The footwork in question happened far away from coach Mike Tomlin, but had field judge Scott Edwards not ruled that Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds the Steelers would have won a game that they deserved to lose.
They also would have saved their season with the mulligan to end all mulligans, and the Steelers were so excited by the reprieve they appeared to receive for inexcusable defensive breakdowns that their sidelines erupted along with the fans who had braved Sunday's winter weather until the bitter end.
"I really thought he scored," Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said.
"I thought we scored obviously," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
"I thought I had it clean," Brown said.
Brown came within inches of scoring on the final play of the game and handing the Dolphins a defeat that might have crushed them for the rest of the season. It started when Roethlisberger threw a 20-yard pass that Emmanuel Sanders caught at the Steelers' 46-yard line.
Sanders touched off a series of laterals when he tossed the ball to Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery quickly flipped it back to Le'Veon Bell, who threw a backward pass to right tackleMarcus Gilbert.
Gilbert pitched the ball to Roethlisberger, and it completely reversed field when the veteran quarterback tossed the ball to Brown as he was getting tackled.
Brown split a pair of defenders, beat safety Reshad Jones to the sidelines and appeared to be off to the races. Only the Dolphins' sideline saved Miami as Brown also beat the last line of defense, Chris Clemons, on the way to the end zone.
"I thought he was in, but obviously I didn't have the perspective of whether or not he stepped out of bounds," Tomlin said after the loss that assured his second non-winning season in as many years.
Edwards had a clear view of the most spectacular play in Steelers history that almost was, and he didn't hesitate to make the call. That is why Tomlin didn't get as excited as his players when Brown reached the end zone.
"He was very definitive and very clear about what he saw over there, so there was no emotional roller coaster ride of any kinds," Tomlin said.
Ryan Clark perhaps offered the best take on the final play.
"It looked like a touchdown, but obviously we're not on that side of the field. If you're a Steeler or a Steelers fan, you'd like for them to let the play go through," Clark said. "Call it a touchdown, because it's going to be reviewed anyway. He made the call and that's what you live with. When you put yourself in that position, when you're banking on Marcus Gilbert handling the ball for you to win the game, that means you haven't done what you were supposed to do earlier."
Clark is spot-on with his final take on the play.
The Steelers never should have put themselves in position to need a play like that to win the game.
They looked like they might take control of a game they had to win early, but then the offense got sloppy. They turned a 10-point deficit into a four-point lead in a span of about three minutes, but they squandered those gains with the defensive breakdowns that have plagued the Steelers all season.
After backup running back Daniel Thomas, widely considered a bust, had gashed them for 105 yards and tight end Charles Clay had scored the second of his two touchdowns by shrugging off a pair of tacklers on the way to the end zone, the Steelers knew they had no business winning the game.
Even if Brown nearly saved them with a nifty 55-yard run at the end on a play that worked so well it looked like the Steelers had practiced it, even though Roethlisberger later said it was completely improvised.
"It was almost one of the greatest plays the game has seen," Cotchery said. "We just came up short. That's kind of how it's been, you know? We keep coming up short."
That is the epitaph for the Steelers' season, one that has already been cemented even if there are three games left to play.