Antonio Brown has been deemed a diva for demanding the ball, a jerk for his touchdown twerk, soft for running out of bounds.
Now that Antonio pulled a Santonio against the Baltimore Ravens with a game-winning, 4-yard catch-and-stretch to clinch the AFC North, it's time to stop questioning his toughness.
Because Brown just scored one of the toughest touchdowns in Steelers history.
Brown didn't just beat cornerback Jerraud Powers on a slant but caught Ben Roethlisberger's bullet, absorbed hits from inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and strong safety Eric Weddle inside the 1-yard line and sprung up to stretch the ball over the goal line with 9 seconds left in a 31-27 victory Sunday.
“When you see a guy playing with passion the way he plays with it, that's never up for debate,” Steelers receiver Eli Rogers said. “Making the plays that he makes, the contested catches where he has to fight and show his will, those questions won't even come up. It's not really a question of his toughness. That's in his game. He's a tough player. That play should (stop criticism) because it was a physical play.”
Not just a physical play, but to Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell a “great play.”
“I don't think there's a lot of receivers willing to do that,” Bell said. “It looks easy when he does it, but that's really a difficult play.”
Brown's extra effort saved the Steelers but didn't stop the second-guessing of fans following the 31-27 victory: What if he hadn't scored and time ran out before the Steelers could spike the ball to stop the clock and set up for a tying field goal?
It's a risk Roethlisberger was willing to take.
“That's a great throw by Ben. He trusted me to come in there and not get stopped,” Brown said. “I knew I was going to take some contact. I knew, after that, I was going to be able to get the ball in.”
Ridiculed for running out of bounds at the Dallas 20 with no time left after a 44-yard catch in a 35-30 loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 13 at Heinz Field, Brown's effort even was questioned by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: “At the end of the game, I'd like to see us stay in bounds and fight and claw for every scratch, every yard, every blade of grass, any opportunity that we can have to win the game.”
He's no Hines Ward when it comes to hitting, but Brown fought and clawed for every scratch against the Ravens.
Brown scored, despite Weddle having a hand on his facemask — a penalty that wasn't called. How to explain a 5-foot-10, 181-pound receiver beating a 6-2, 241-pound linebacker? Mosley called it “just a matter of effort.”
“I hit him and he had the extra effort and reached out,” Mosley said. “He made the play, and I didn't on that one.”
Brown has invited some of his criticism, especially for the touchdown dances that drew fines and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. But when he scored the touchdown to beat the Ravens, one reminiscent of Santonio Holmes' AFC North-clinching catch in a 13-9 victory over the Ravens in 2008, Brown handed the ball to left guard Ramon Foster so he could spike it.
Call Brown a diva for demanding the ball — and his receptions have dropped from 129 in 2014 and 136 last season to 106 this season, when he drew double and triple teams — but he produced when called upon in the fourth quarter Sunday. Six of his 10 catches and 73 of his 96 yards (both game highs) came with the season on the line.
“I might not get the ball as much as I want to. I've just got to stay positive,” Brown said. “We've got a great quarterback who don't blink. I know as the game continues on, it's going to present opportunities. And they found a way to get me the ball.”
Lost amid the celebration of the Christmas Comeback was the game-winner was the 50th touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Brown, breaking the team tandem record set by Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann.
Brown also has eclipsed both 1,000 receiving yards and 100 receptions for the fourth consecutive season, and his 481 catches over that span is the most in NFL history.
Criticize him all you want. Call him what you will. But against the Ravens, Brown answered anyone who has questioned his willingness to win at all costs.
Now, he's a Super Bowl shy of a new label: The best wide receiver in Steelers history.