PITTSBURGH (AP) — Maybe Mike Tomlin called it.
Maybe it was Todd Haley.
Maybe Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Rogers went rogue.
The chaos surrounding Pittsburgh’s decision to go for the win instead of force overtime late in a 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday doesn’t lead to easy answers.
Roethlisberger initially said he was told to run a play rather than spike the ball to set up an easy field goal.
Roethlisberger later backed off, offering “maybe I should have clocked it” regardless of what was going on.
“We’re not going to look back and second guess anything or anybody,” Roethlisberger said.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Pinning a fifth straight loss to the Patriots on everything that wrong for the AFC North champions in the final 35 seconds — from Jesse James’ lunging touchdown grab that was overturned on review to Roethlisberger’s fake spike that turned into a game-ending pick — the Steelers are aware they had plenty of chances in the first 59 minutes to end years of frustration at the hands of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and company.
“They’re beatable,” safety Sean Davis said. “It’s a tough game. We had some bad calls, but I ain’t going to put it on the refs. But we can’t leave the game in the ref’s hands. We was up big. We’ve got to bury them next time.”
Covering Gronkowski effectively would help. Davis got an up-close look at the seemingly unsolvable matchup problem the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski offers when the 6-foot-1 Davis spent Pittsburgh’s final drive fruitlessly chasing Gronkowski downfield.
Gronkowski caught three passes for 69 yards as well as the 2-point conversion that put the Patriots up three, a sequence Pittsburgh (11-3) could have avoided if Davis had held onto a tipped Tom Brady pass that smacked off Davis’ hands on the first play of New England’s penultimate possession.
“Brady was throwing it right in there, man,” Davis said. “He just made more plays than us. They made more plays than us.”
But did they really?
The Steelers outgained New England 413-360, picked off Brady for the first time in 12 years, held the ball for 35 minutes and did it all without much from wide receiver Antonio Brown.
The only player to have five consecutive 100-catch seasons left in the second quarter with a left calf injury and didn’t return.
Pittsburgh offered no update on Brown’s status Monday, though he hardly seemed despondent in a Twitter post.
“This is a minor setback for me but not this team,” Brown tweeted. “The goal is still the same & I’m confident that we can & will achieve it. We may not have won the game yesterday but this TEAM made a statement.”
Yet hanging with the Patriots is one thing. Beating them is another matter.
The Steelers let several chances to put the game away disappear, from Davis’ near pick to a three-and-out late in the fourth quarter while clinging to a five-point lead.
Pittsburgh needed 4 yards on third down and instead got just 3 when rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster was dragged to the ground a yard short.
Pittsburgh punted and the Patriots went right down the field.
The missed opportunities, however, began almost from the outset. On New England’s first drive of the game, the Steelers appeared to get off the field after stopping the Patriots on third down.
Defensive end Cam Heyward was flagged for holding. Three plays later, New England was in the end zone.
“We had a lot of chances to close the door in that game, we didn’t,” Heyward said. “We learned (and) we lived.”
Pittsburgh has an extra day to recover emotionally before going to Houston to face the Texans on Christmas Day.
A victory and another over Cleveland on New Year’s Eve would secure a first-round playoff bye and maybe home-field advantage if the Patriots stub their toe at home against Buffalo or the Jets.
It’s possible. It’s just not likely. Heyward knows this, but he’s not going to let it define what has been a special season.
There may be a rematch against the Patriots in January.
If it has to be in New England, so be it.
“I don’t look at it anything crazy but five games, I mean, four to the Super Bowl,” Heyward said. “I’m looking forward to all of it. We can be dejected about this, but I like where we are at.”