The Pittsburgh Steelers may need years to get over the ending to its blockbuster game against the New England Patriots Sunday at Heinz Field. Fans can debate whether Jesse James’ touchdown catch should have been overturned until they’re blue in the face, but the reality of the referee’s decision remains: the Patriots victory puts them in poll position for home field advantage in the playoffs. The Steelers had opportunities to put the Patriots away, but ultimately could not vanquish Ben Roethlisberger’s kryptonite. The emotional toll of the game is almost as strong as the physical toll of the game. In addition to seeing the game slip away in the most agonizing way possible, the Steelers lost star and MVP candidate Antonio Brown in the second quarter to a calf injury. Brown never returned and the results of further tests may determine the mood in Pittsburgh heading into their Christmas Day showdown with the Houston Texans. Should Brown’s injury be long-term, or even several weeks, the Steelers’ season outlook changes dramatically.
Martavis Bryant picked up the slack in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s exit, serving as Roethlisberger’s primary target in the second quarter and snagging a one-handed touchdown catch to give the Steelers a one-touchdown lead heading into the half. Le’Veon Bell shouldered a big load in the second half and JuJu Smith-Schuster was counted to make plays late in the game. Smith-Schuster was targeted on a shallow crossing route on a third down play before the 2-minute warning and under a minute left after the Patriots took a three-point lead. While the three were able to mitigate Brown’s absence temporarily, he was missed tremendously in the second half and the Patriots were able to commit more players to the blitz without the threat of the league’s leading receiver. Going forward, the Steelers will need to find a balance between relying heavily on Bell and involving their healthy receivers should Brown miss the Texans game and the season finale against Cleveland. With Jacksonville only a game behind Pittsburgh and New England, the Steelers can ill afford a let-down after their emotional loss. Two wins from two are required for Pittsburgh to maintain the second position in the playoffs.
Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff will have to encourage the team to bleach the final 30 seconds from their memory. Tomlin will have to spin the result into an unseen positive to motivate his team and get the players to put behind the Patriots’ loss behind them and let the NFL studio analysts debate the NFL’s criteria for a catch. A short memory is required if the Steelers want to chase a Super Bowl this season. However, with Brown’s injury and the mental hurdle that the Patriots seem to provide Pittsburgh, the road to Minnesota seems to have gotten significantly more difficult for Pittsburgh.