The Steelers are solely to blame for the predicament they currently find themselves in. Needing two wins against the Browns, Broncos, Chargers and Raiders over the course of the season, one of the NFL's best teams on paper somehow managed to go 0-3-1. Still, Pittsburgh had a chance to remain atop the AFC North on Sunday; all it had to do was to go into New Orleans and beat the Saints.
The Steelers played their best game of the season but a confluence of events -- some their own doing (a Stevan Ridley fumble and a fake punt from midfield on fourth-and-5 come to mind) and some completely out of their control. Which brings us to the Saints' second drive of the game.
Trailing 3-0 and facing fourth-and-1 from Pittsburgh's 34-yard line, Drew Brees overthrew Alvin Kamara in the end zone. The incompletion would have given the ball back to the Steelers. Except Joe Haden was flagged for pass interference for this:
That's ... something.
So instead of the Steelers getting the ball back, the Saints scored a play later to make it 7-3. Again, the game wasn't decided by that one play but it's just the latest maddening example of over-officiating. And it's not just us whining about it; former officials are pointing out what has been painfully obvious for some time. Here's CBS Sports rules analyst and former NFL referee Gene Steratore:
Even though Joe Haden did have a hand on the receiver prior to the ball being there, he should not have been penalized for Pass Interference on this play. This contact did not effect the receiver and is not severe enough to warrant a flag.#PITvsNO pic.twitter.com/xC4YcyNhKt— Gene Steratore (@GeneSteratore) December 23, 2018
"[Defensive pass interference] is called by the back judge and I don't think there is enough material effect to have a foul for defensive pass interference," Steratore said in a message posted to Twitter. He went on to explain that "there would definitely be more than two eyes on that play at the end [from officials]. So even though the back judge felt there was enough restriction, I do think there are other officials on the field that would see that [play] from a different angle, and be able to come to that back judge, talk to him, and possibly -- and hopefully -- take him off of that play. It's a big foul, these are big games, and we need to get them right at this point of the season."
Former NFL head of officials Mike Pereira, who is now an analyst for Fox Sports, agreed:
Even Tony Dungy, often the voice of reason amid a sea of screaming heads, was unimpressed.
Big Pass Interference call on the Steelers on a 4th down. Very ticky tack call gave the Saints 7 points. 7-3 Saints lead in the first Qtr.— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) December 23, 2018
As you might imagine, Haden was still stewing over the call following the Steelers' 31-28 loss.
"I'm very frustrated, very pissed," he said, via NOLA.com. "I don't know what they saw. I tried to jump up and go get the ball, and they said I pushed him in the back. I don't think I did that at all."
Coach Mike Tomlin, who has been criticized for his in-game decisions all season and will likely draw scrutiny for dialing up a fake punt that ultimately failed near the end of the game, wasn't interested in pointing fingers at the refs.
"I'm not here to evaluate the officiating," he told reporters after the game. "I'll let those guys evaluate themselves in the appropriate manor. I'm here to talk about what we did in stadium and what we didn't do. The officiating didn't determine the outcome of the game. We find comfort in that. The quality of our play and the execution determines the outcome of games. So, not into that."
And ultimately, this isn't about one call that may have affected one game. This is about losing to teams the Steelers should beat -- like the Browns back in Week 1, or the Raiders earlier this month. "We made the bed. We'll lay in it," Tomlin said before adding: "And I'll expect us to lay in it very well and perform. We'll control what it is that we can control, and that is our preparation and play next week."
Currently on the outside looking in, the Steelers now need the Browns to beat the Ravens next Sunday while Pittsburgh will still need to win against Cincinnati. But again, it didn't have to come to this.