AFC North: 2013 Week 14 MIA at PIT

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' players, shell-shocked though they may have been after blowing a must-win game and then nearly winning it on a miracle play, were very much in touch with reality following a 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field.

What made the locker room so quiet following the Steelers’ seventh loss of the season was what their reality is after losing to the Dolphins in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1990.

“It probably cost us a chance of winning the Super Bowl,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said.

Sanders’ teammates didn’t frame the bitter loss -- and its implications -- in as stark of terms, but they all pretty much echoed similar sentiments. The playoffs aren’t much more realistic to the Steelers than Santa Claus right now, and that is because, first and foremost, they haven’t done anything to suggest they will win their final three games to get to 8-8.

As cornerback Ike Taylor said, “When you’re consistent at being inconsistent, big plays happen and you get the 5-8 record.”

Even if the Steelers reel off three consecutive wins to end the season, they would need so much to happen to sneak into the playoffs. The Ravens and Dolphins are each two games ahead of the Steelers with three to play, and both hold advantages in the tiebreakers that matter as well.

“If we win three and some things fall our way, then good,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “But the biggest thing is continuing to play, continuing to play hard, continuing to understand that we’re here to do a job.”

A disconsolate Ben Roethlisberger offered the same pledge that he has after deflating losses earlier this season.

“We aren’t going to quit,” the quarterback said. “We are going to keep playing, come back tomorrow and get ready to go.”

Whether an organization that expects to contend for the Super Bowl every year can muster any enthusiasm for the final three weeks of a second non-winning season in a row remains to be seen. But the Steelers have vowed to fight, vowed to act like professionals and, above all, vowed to do anything but play out the string.

“In my mind we’ve still got a chance,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “Until they say we’re done with our season, we’re going to go out there and fight. It doesn’t matter who it is, they better be ready to play us.”

The Bengals, Packers and Browns should consider themselves warned.

Steelers nearly pull off miracle play

December, 8, 2013
Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Tom E. PuskarInches from victory, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers suffered an agonizing loss to Miami.
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 tackle Marcus 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.

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 8, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Steelers' season is all but over after the defense failed to protect several second-half leads and Ben Roethlisberger couldn't conjure up any late magic at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger was masterful for much of the second half, but he couldn't engineer a drive after twice getting the ball with less than four minutes left in the game and the Steelers needing a score to keep their season alive. The Steelers almost scored a miraculous touchdown on the final play of the game, but Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds at the Dolphins' 11-yard line after a series of laterals. The Steelers are 5-8, and even if they win out, they would need a ton of stuff to happen just to have a chance of sneaking into the AFC playoffs as the second wild card.

Stock watch: The defense provided a big play that gave the Steelers their first lead in a back-and-forth second half, but it also cost them a game that they could not afford to lose. Shoddy tackling and an overall lack of discipline allowed Dolphins such as tight end Charles Clay and backup running back Daniel Thomas to shred the Steelers' defense. They combined for three touchdowns, and Thomas rushed for 105 yards on 16 carries while Clay had seven catches for 97 yards. Clay scored the winning touchdown when neither Troy Polamalu nor Cortez Allen could get the third-year man down after he had caught a pass in the flat.

Switcheroo: LaMarr Woodley returned to the lineup but not the position he has primarily played since becoming a starter in 2008. The Steelers kept Jason Worilds at left outside linebacker, where he had shined in Woodley's absence, and the fourth-year veteran justified coach Mike Tomlin's decision to flip his starting outside linebackers, as Worilds recorded a pair of sacks, including a key one early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers started Woodley but eased him back into action as he split time at right outside linebacker with rookie Jarvis Jones.

An emerging star: Cameron Heyward is playing as well as anyone on the Steelers, and he showed in the first half alone why the third-year veteran has emerged as a cornerstone of the defense. Heyward seemed to be in on every Steelers tackle, and he had six of them in the first two quarters. The former first-round draft pick also sacked QB Ryan Tannehill and batted down a pass in the first half.

Shades of the Iron Bowl: The most exciting play of a rather drab first half happened on the final play -- and evoked memories of the play of the year in college football, a 109-yard touchdown return that Auburn used to beat No. 1 Alabama. It started when Polamalu caught a 52-yard field goal attempt 8 yards deep in the end zone. Polamalu weaved his way to the 30-yard line and threw the ball back to nose tackle Steve McLendon before getting tackled. McLendon flipped the ball to Ike Taylor, and the former college running back made his way to the Dolphins' 40-yard line before getting tackled.

Next up: The Steelers play their final prime-time game of the season next Sunday when they host the Bengals for an 8:30 p.m. ET game. The Bengals improved to 9-4 by beating the Colts, and only an epic collapse will prevent them from winning the AFC North.