For a moment, the Steelers thought they had finally beaten the Patriots. That moment was fleeting; referee Tony Corrente overturned Jesse James' touchdown reception, instead ruling it an incomplete pass and leaving the Steelers with 28 seconds and 10 yards between them and victory.
And while the officials correctly interpreted the rules as written, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin conceded after the game that of all the outcomes, he didn't expect the call on the field to be changed to an incomplete pass. As the play was being reviewed, Tomlin said he was informed of another possible scenario -- that James was down at the one-yard line and 10 seconds would be run off the clock before the snap.
"[T]here was also another scenario that was probably more critical and more time specific that was being discussed," Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It was being discussed, it was presented to us by the officials during the review process, that if he gets ruled 'completed catch, down in bounds' that was probably the most significant element of the discussion as we approached the last play. ...
"So obviously, 10-second runoff, running clock — that's the scenario that maintained most of our attention in terms of what could happen as they came out of review. What did happen when they came out of review obviously was the least of the scenarios from my expectation."
That would explain why the Steelers' next play, from the 10 yard line, looked disjointed. Ben Roethlisberger completed a three-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who couldn't get out of bounds. Roethliberger rushed to the line and instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock, he forced a pass into the end zone that was intercepted. Tomlin, Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have all been criticized for how those final seconds played out. The quarterback said he wanted to spike the ball to set up the game-tying field goal but was instructed to go for it on third down.
On Tuesday, Tomlin owned that decision.
"Man, I find comfort in the fact that 7's my quarterback," the coach said. "If everybody on the field is uncomfortable, then that's advantage Pittsburgh Steelers. And that's why we chose not to spike that ball. We wanted to try to win that game in regulation. There were extra seconds there that I wanted to take advantage of, that's why we instructed him not to spike it. If given an opportunity to do that again, I'd do it again. We've made a lot of hay in those circumstances over the years when everyone's a little bit uncomfortable."
If the Steelers win their final two regular-season games (in Houston, Cleveland) they'll finish no worse than the No. 2 seed in the AFC. And should the Patriots lose to either the Bills or Jets, Pittsburgh would be the No. 1 seed and have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.