USA TODAY Sports NFL insider Jarrett Bell attempts to put into words the unbelievable finish in Minnesota, and how important situational football meant in a weekend of classic games. Call it the Unholy Roller.
For all of the elements in a deep-fried basket of stuff that went wrong on Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers, nothing quite tops the deflating onside kick late in the fourth quarter that all but finished them.
As Chris Boswell lined up to squib the football, imagine the consternation from Steelers Nation:
Don’t do it!!!
Beyond the poor execution — there was no bounce, no recovery, no chance, only a penalty for illegal touching that cost 5 more yards — the decision may haunt Mike Tomlin for some time.
If not, it should. It blew the last legitimate shot for a miracle comeback. “We wanted to get the ball back,” Tomlin explained after the 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars canceled the hype for a rematch against the Patriots.
Yeah, but there was still a chance for that. And the Steelers had regained a measure of momentum after the incredible 8-yard TD run by Le’Veon Bell — which started with a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger throwing a backward pass that went into the books as a lateral — made it a seven-point game with 2:18 on the clock.
It was not time for a panic move. The Steelers had two timeouts, plus the two-minute warning. By kicking it deep, Pittsburgh would put the pressure on the Jaguars — and maybe even apply the type of pressure that Blake Bortles hadn’t seen all day (0 sacks).
But on a day when the Steelers allowed the most points in a home playoff game in franchise history, Tomlin had lost faith in his defense by then. “We hadn’t stopped them convincingly,” he said. The question begs: Where’s James Harrison when you really need him? Oh, Harrison’s in New England, prepping for next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
Tomlin, meanwhile, is the coach who gambled and lost. Blessed by the gifted field position, the Jaguars cashed in with a 45-yard field goal that made it a 10-point game. It was hardly the only head-scratching move. The Steelers got an F for fourth-and-1 calls.
Consider: Roethlisberger is like money on fourth-and-1 sneaks, converting 18 of 19 such rushes during his career, including playoffs. The 94.7% success rate is highest for any player with at least 10 attempts since 2004. Yet on fourth-and-1 from the Jaguars’ 21 in the first quarter, offensive coordinator Todd Haley called for Bell to run wide right. Stuffed.
Tomlin’s explanation: The Jaguars jammed the A and B gaps in the middle. Another fourth-and-1 call in the fourth quarter, from the Jags 39, was just as baffling. Roethlisberger threw over the middle for rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. Incomplete.
The replay showed how crafty cornerback A.J. Bouye grabbed a fistful of jersey in his coverage, but there was no call. Only second-guessing about the call. There used to be a time when you could count on the Steelers ramming it inside for the tough yards. Not now.
Even so, the Steelers still rallied from a 21-0 hole to emerge with a chance to add an incredible new chapter to the playoff history of the franchise that gave us the Immaculate Reception. “Games like this,” Tomlin said, “are not defined by how you start.” Then again, starting and finishing with a thud is not ideal.
It figured that after getting clobbered by Jacksonville in Week 5 at Heinz Field, the Steelers would have their mettle tested. Roethlisberger, who was intercepted 5 times in Week 5, became the first quarterback during the Super Bowl era to pass for 400 yards and 5 TDs. Guess he has something left after all. But he still lost.
The defense had no answers for (gulp) the much-maligned Bortles, who was at his best on third downs, or rookie runner Leonard Fournette, who scored three touchdowns. It was outfoxed by Jags coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who called for Bortles to float a soft pass over the middle to seldom-targeted fullback Tommy Bohannon that went for a 14-yard TD in the fourth quarter. On the previous TD drive earlier in the quarter, the huge cushion made a third-and-8 completion to Marqise Lee look way too easy.
“They won the moments,” Tomlin summed up. And the Steelers still had a chance, thanks to four of the most remarkable TD receptions you’ll ever see from a losing team in the playoffs — two from the wizardry of Antonio Brown, another from Bell, another from Martavis Bryant.
That two of Roethlisberger’s big TD throws came on fourth down kept hope alive, that a team that thrived this season despite one drama after another — on and off the field — had enough left for one more dramatic comeback win. Turns out, though, the Steelers had no more last-minute magic left.