PITTSBURGH -- The game lived up to its advance billing and came packaged with a surreal ending that belonged on the third Sunday in January, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers made breathtaking plays, a bogus rule stained the beauty of the event and Ben Roethlisberger ripped a page out of Dan Marino's old playbook and tried a fake spike that turned victory into defeat.
Everything about the endgame was wild and crazy and unpredictable except, of course, the final result. The Patriots won and the Steelers lost because that's what always seems to happen when these two titans meet. The easy narrative after New England's 27-24 victory assigned the Steelers the roles of haunted losers, contenders who could've won more titles had they come along at a different time. A time when they wouldn't have gotten Bill Belichick'd and Tom Brady'd as often as they did.
Just like Arnold Palmer could never beat Jack Nicklaus, and the old Lakers could never beat the old Celtics and the Buffalo Bills of the '90s could never beat whoever they faced in the Super Bowl, the Steelers could have left Heinz Field on Sunday night feeling like they'll never solve the Patriots. Pittsburgh had the defending champions on the ropes, all but waiting for Big Ben to throw the big right hand after the officials took a go-ahead touchdown off the board.
Instead, with the clock ticking and nine seconds to play, Roethlisberger took the snap at the 7-yard line, did the ol' Marino fake -- the former Dolphins great once famously beat the Jets (who else?) on this form of sorcery -- and fired a fastball for Eli Rogers that instead hit the left arm of the diving New England defender, Eric Rowe. The ball bounced high and into the waiting arms of Duron Harmon, a reliable closer in these situations, and that was that. This was the ultimate Patriots play under the ultimate Patriots circumstances, and Malcolm Butler surely approved.
As the Steelers did a zombie-like stagger off the field, they had to be asking themselves: How in the world did we lose this game? How can we control the ball for 35 minutes and put a bunch of hits on Brady and still fall short? How can we watch JuJu Smith-Schuster answer Antonio Brown's second-quarter calf injury and a painfully late Patriots touchdown and two-point conversion with an astonishing 69-yard catch and run, then still ask him to field questions about New England's dominance?
How can we watch Jesse James score the apparent game-winning touchdown with 28 seconds left and still face the prospect of a second straight AFC Championship Game in Foxborough?
"It sucks, honestly," Smith-Schuster said. "That was a b---- a-- call by the refs."
He was talking about the officials' decision that James hadn't maintained control of the ball through to the ground. It was a correct ruling off a terrible rule -- a rule universally loathed by fans and players alike -- and the NFL needs to change it ASAP. Asked if he felt the game had been taken from Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster said: "Yeah, definitely."
No, the Steelers didn't lose this rain-stained struggle for AFC supremacy because the officials gave them a raw deal. They lost because the Patriots forever make their opponents play the full 3,600 seconds of football, and the Steelers cracked at the 3,595-second mark, when Roethlisberger's deflected pass into the end zone was caught by Rowe.
Yet the Steelers should leave this defeat with credible hope for the near future. Unlike last season's AFC championship in New England -- in which Brady shredded the pathetic Pittsburgh zone for 384 yards, three touchdowns and made Chris Hogan look like Jerry Rice -- the Steelers figured out Sunday how to compete with the Patriots. They couldn't cover the returning Rob Gronkowski (who can?), but they applied more physical, man-to-man pressure to the Patriots' wide receivers and made Brady as uncomfortable as he has looked in their presence.
Brady still had good numbers on Sunday with 298 passing yards and a touchdown. But he was sacked twice, hit six times and harassed into an interception that led to a Le'Veon Bell touchdown late in the third quarter. Brady entered with a 10-2 career record against the Steelers, and he hadn't thrown an interception against them since 2005. He had 22 touchdown passes and no interceptions against Pittsburgh in seven starts, including last year's AFC title game, since the start of the 2007 season.
So the Steelers finally made Brady work for it, finally saw him sweat. That's progress. They will need the incomparable Brown to win it all, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the receiver's partially torn calf is expected to heal up by playoff time. Meanwhile, the Steelers still have an elite quarterback who can run, or rumble, for the occasional first down when needed. They still have Bell, who has more rushing yards (1,222) and receptions (80) than any back in the league. They still have the dynamic rookie Smith-Schuster and a wild card in Martavis Bryant who, when eligible to work, proved he's capable of making one-handed catches in the end zone.
Is it enough to win an all-or-nothing game at Gillette Stadium, with Brown at something approaching full strength? It appears it will have to be.
"Obviously, the Patriots are the team to beat," said Pittsburgh's Alejandro Villanueva. "They've proven year in, year out that they dominate the AFC, and for us to accomplish our goals, we're going to have to beat them at some point."
That point, predicted Rogers, will arrive next month. "We'll see them again," the receiver said, "and the outcome will be different."
We'll see about that. But until they meet again, Mike Tomlin can feel as good as a head coach can feel about losing a huge December home game to the rivals who have tormented him for years. Tomlin had shunned NFL coach-speak protocol in talking up this game weeks ago. He promised "fireworks" and said he cherished the opportunity to participate in "these type games against these type people." And when it was over Sunday, as hurt as he was by the result, Tomlin smartly declined to pin it on a foolish rule.
"I'm not going to cry over spilled milk and all that crap and talk about replay," he said. "I ain't doing it."
For good reason. Even though Smith-Schuster said losing to New England "kind of affects us," this defeat shouldn't leave any lasting scars. Pittsburgh stood up to New England, finally figured out a workable plan of attack and even created a special, towel-waving moment for Ryan Shazier -- the toughest fan in the house.
In the end, the Steelers might not be good enough beat the Patriots in January. But if they make the trip to Foxborough, they shouldn't show up feeling half as haunted as they were.