Jesse James' would-be 10-yard touchdown with 28 seconds left was waved off because he didn't complete the catch process, a ruling that is sure to be questioned.
And the souls of Heinz Field were crushed once again by the Patriots, who broke off a surgical, five-play drive that ended with a Dion Lewis rushing touchdown with 56 seconds left. The drive was almost all Rob Gronkowski, who punished safety Sean Davis on the two-point conversion to cement the final score, 27-24.
"We're not going to look back and not second-guess anything or anybody -- we lost the game, and I threw a pick in the end zone on the last play," said Roethlisberger, whose over-the-middle attempt to Eli Rogers was tipped by Eric Rowe.
The Steelers were in control for most of the game and looked destined to crack New England's four-game winning streak against them. Even at the end, JuJu Smith-Schuster's wheeling 69-yard run in the final minute appeared to set up the inevitable slaying of the dragon that is the Patriots.
The fourth quarter was that intense, which is to be expected from the game of the year, but it is New England that now has the edge in the race for home-field advantage in the postseason. Not Pittsburgh, which looked so ready to post this season's ninth straight win that it intercepted Tom Brady for the first time in 12 years, with linebacker Vince Williams picking him off over the middle.
The loss snapped an eight-game winning streak, but at 11-3 and much to play for, the Steelers emerged more upset than devastated.
"They were the team to beat. We had them," guard David DeCastro said. "Had them again. But didn’t."
After Brady's 22 touchdowns and six wins in his past seven games against Pittsburgh, the Steelers' defense finally held the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback to reasonable numbers (22-for-35 passing, 298 yards, one touchdown, one interception).
But it wasn't enough. Brady was average at times but stepped up in the pocket for big deliveries at crucial moments, usually to Gronkowski (nine catches, 168 yards). For as much as the Steelers talked this week about getting pressure up the middle, Brady had room between the hashes on some of his best throws.
The Steelers liked their game plan and played more man coverage against the Patriots than they had in the past. They looked unorganized early on against the no-huddle attack of New England, which posted 60-plus yards on three of its first offensive drives, but they created timely pressure, with Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree each posting crucial sacks.
"Tight coverage, pressure Brady -- I think they did both of those really good tonight," Artie Burns said. "We just didn't make enough plays."
Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell & Co. were brilliant for much of the game.
Roethlisberger's magic on third down and Bell's steady play all night helped offset the loss of Antonio Brown, who left the game early in the second quarter with a calf injury and was taken to the hospital.
On the very next drive, the Steelers stayed cool and relied on a bevy of playmakers to pound the ball downfield for 15 plays and 78 yards, milking 8 minutes, 39 seconds of clock to close out the first half with a touchdown pass and a 17-10 lead. Roethlisberger converted at least five third downs while throwing on the move. A throw to Martavis Bryant for 10 yards on third-and-7 was especially crucial to extend the late drive in the first half. An offense that struggled early in the year to bat .400 on third downs converted 10 of its first 13, which the Patriots hadn't allowed since 2013.
But a three-and-out in the final minutes of the contest was brutal for Pittsburgh, and it opened the door for New England. And that final pass, for as good an idea as it seemed, was thrown to a well-covered Rogers and popped in the air, right to Harmon. They clearly missed Brown's late-game heroics at these times.
Roethlisberger appeared to fake a spike on the final play, but he told reporters he was yelling "clock" because he felt that was best, and the call from the sideline was to run another play. Roethlisberger said running a play when teammates already thought they were clocking was difficult, so "you've just got to make a play and I didn't make a good enough throw."
"Maybe they wanted a field goal. I don't know. So maybe that's on me," Roethlisberger said. "We're not going to look back and not second-guess anything or anybody. We lost the game, and I threw a pick in the end zone at the end of the game to lose it.”
Bell was a physical presence all night, finishing off his 16 first-half touches for 94 yards with forearms, shoulders and helmets. With 117 yards on the ground (and 165 yards total), Bell became the first Steeler to rush for 100-plus yards and a score against the Patriots since Merril Hoge in 1990.
Bryant had his biggest game since Week 2 -- reminding everyone why the Steelers never traded him -- thanks to big playmaking, including a diving 39-yard catch down the sideline and a brilliant, one-handed touchdown catch from 4 yards out with a Patriots cornerback draped over him.
All that won't ease the tension that remains about the long-standing issues against New England, which hasn't lost to Pittsburgh since 2011. But Steelers players are eager for another chance at the Patriots.
'That's a road that we have to take," Heyward said.