Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin listens to Head Linesman Patrick Turner in the fourth quarter of the Patriots 27-24 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on December 17, 2017. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers went from being in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC to possibly having to win their final two games of the regular season to earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
The Steelers are 11-3 after dropping a 27-24 decision to the New England Patriots, who now own the top seed in the conference based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Pittsburgh is one game ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the No. 2 seed, but if both teams finish with the same record, the Jaguars own the tiebreaker over the Steelers based on their head-to-head victory over the Steelers in October.
That makes the final two games of the regular season for the Steelers extra important. With injuries mounting, including the latest to star receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers could use all the extra rest they can get.
The only way for the Steelers to regain the top seed in the AFC is if they win their final two games and the Patriots lose one of their final two to either the Bills or Jets.
The Steelers seemingly had the game against the Patriots won. Ben Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James with 28 seconds remaining. Officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, but senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron ruled it was not a catch upon review.
The Steelers play in Houston on Christmas Day and then finish the regular season at home against Cleveland, but many of them are already looking forward to a rematch with the Patriots in the playoffs.
"We'll see them again, and the outcome will be different," receiver Eli Rogers said.
Team captain and defensive end Cameron Heyward knows the road to the Super Bowl likely goes through Foxborough now.
"I want another shot at everyone we lose to," Heyward said. "There is a road we're going to have to take. I know we have the same record now. At the end of the day, we have a lot of football ahead of us. Now we have to go on a five-game winning streak from here on out. Four games to get to the Super Bowl. I'm looking forward to all of it. We can be dejected about this, but I like where we're at."
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is the best in the NFL, but Ben Roethlisberger proved he could move the Steelers offense without him. Brown was injured early in the second quarter and did not return. He was taken to the hospital with a calf injury.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie, had 114 receiving yards, and Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell helped picked up the slack, too. They will have to continue doing that for the foreseeable future because Brown is not expected to play in the final two regular-season games.
"With a guy of that caliber, the best receiver in the world, when he goes out you have to step up as a receiving corps," slot receiver Eli Rogers said.
Bryant hasn't had the type of season he expected, but he will have the chance now to prove his worth.
"I was just playing hard, reacting and enjoying the game of football," Bryant said. "It was my first game against them. We'll see them again in a couple of weeks."
Steelers players were moved by the appearance of teammate Ryan Shazier at the game. Shazier injured his spinal cord in a Dec. 4 game in Cincinnati and had spinal stabilization surgery two days later. He began rehabilitation last week and his visit to Heinz Field was his first public appearance since the injury.
"I heard whispers that he might be here," defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "When you see a guy like that on the jumbotron, a lot of emotions went through. I kept thinking, dang, I wish he were out here. I know he wishes he could be out there. We wanted to play hard for him. I thought a lot of guys did. We didn't get that W for him. He knew we played hard as well. We will talk more about it later."
Added quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "It was awesome. We would have loved to have won this game for him. To see him here was really cool."
NOTES: RB Le'Veon Bell needs 112 yards to become the third-leading rusher in franchise history. Bell has 5,267 yards, 111 behind Willie Parker. Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis own the top two spots. Bell became the first player in franchise history to reach 1,800 scrimmage yards in consecutive seasons. ... WR JuJu Smith-Schuster recorded the second 100-yard receiving game of his career. He had been questionable to play in the game with a hamstring injury. ... DE Cameron Heyward picked up his 10th sack of the season. He needs four sacks over the final two games to tie the franchise record for most sacks in a season by a defensive lineman. Keith Willis owns the record with 14.
REPORT CARD VS. PATRIOTS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B - The Steelers did a nice job of adjusting after Antonio Brown left the game early in the second quarter with a calf injury. They finished with 281 passing yards, and just about everyone got into the act. Eight Steelers players caught passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who finished with two touchdowns and one interception. JuJu Smith-Schuster led the way with 144 yards, including a 69-yard catch and run that set the Steelers up at the Patriots 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining. The interception to end the game was unfortunate for Roethlisberger, but he the Steelers were trying to get the win in regulation and not go to overtime. It was an aggressive play that did not work.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B - The Steelers ran for 143 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry against the Patriots. Le'Veon Bell had 117 yards on 24 carries and scored a touchdown. James Conner added 13 yards on three carries, but he sprained the MCL in his left knee late in the game and did not return. If Conner is not available for the final two games of the regular season, Fitzgerald Toussaint will have a larger role. He started the season on the practice squad, but he has plenty of game experience from previous seasons.
--PASS DEFENSE: D - The Steelers had no answer for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who finished the game with nine receptions for 168 yards. He was running wide open all over the field as the Steelers tried to cover him with strong safety Sean Davis for most of the game. Davis was ill-equipped to handle that assignment, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler didn't do enough to help him. Tom Brady finished with 298 passing yards, but the Steelers sacked him twice and pressured him well throughout the game.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B - After allowing over 100 yards to the Bengals and Ravens in their previous two games, the Steelers front seven did a much better job against the Patriots. Dion Lewis rushed for 67 yards on 13 carries, but his longest rush of the game was only 12 yards. The Steelers did not allow the Patriots to control the game with their running backs. They will have to continue those types of performances in the final two games of the regular season because the offense won't be as explosive without Antonio Brown.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Chris Boswell's terrific season continued. He kicked a 51-yard field goal and is now two field goals shy of breaking the franchise record for most field goals in a season. But as much as Boswell does for the special teams, the return teams aren't doing their part. The Steelers averaged just 17 yards per kickoff return against the Patriots. Punt returner Eli Rogers failed to field a punt, and the Steelers had to start another drive inside their 5-yard line. One other positive from the game was the performance of punter Jordan Berry, who averaged 42.8 yards per punt and booted a 60-yarder late in the game.
--COACHING: B-minus - The decision at the end of the game to play aggressive rather than conservative will be debated for a long time. A field goal would have sent the game to overtime, but Ben Roethlisberger's pass was deflected and intercepted. The bigger issue was defensive coordinator Keith Butler's decision to leave strong safety Sean Davis in man coverage with Rob Gronkowski for most of the game. Gronkowski made the Steelers pay with 168 receiving yards. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley did a nice job of adjusting the game plan after Antonio Brown was injured, but he can be second-guessed too for his conservative play-calling late in the game when the Steelers had a chance to run the clock out. On third down, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a three-yard pattern when they needed four yards.