Late Fumble Costs Steelers a Win, and Maybe More, Against the Saints

It looked like JuJu Smith-Schuster had made yet another critical catch in a season full of them for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With his team trailing the New Orleans Saints by three points in the final minute, Smith-Schuster, a second-year receiver, made a catch that put his team in field goal position — but the ball popped loose as he was wrapped up by Sheldon Rankins, and the Saints recovered.

The uncharacteristic mistake by Smith-Schuster could scarcely have been more costly. It gave the Saints a 31-28 win at home, and it knocked the Steelers out of the top spot in the A.F.C. North and, at least temporarily, out of the playoff picture.

It also secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Saints, who prevailed on a night when they were far from their best — one great drive by the offense in the fourth quarter, aided by a pass-interference penalty, was enough to earn the win.

“It was a battle and listen, we’re battle tested,” quarterback Drew Brees said in an on-field interview after the game.

Acknowledging the improbable result that improved his team’s record to 13-2, Brees added, “I love to find out how we’re going to win every week.”

In contrast, a somewhat somber Ben Roethlisberger addressed the news media after the game, refusing to blame the referees and trying to remain optimistic going into Week 17.

“The story’s not written yet,” Roethlisberger said. “I told the guys in there, ‘Listen, it’s not over yet.’ This chapter is not done. Obviously, we don’t control it, but let’s see what happens.”

Smith-Schuster had 11 catches for 115 yards, and his teammate and mentor Antonio Brown added 185 yards and two touchdowns, but the late fumble proved to be the most critical play of the game.

Brown had put the Steelers on top late in the third quarter with a 20-yard touchdown grab one play after he pulled down what initially appeared to be one of the best catches of the season — but his one-handed grab was ruled incomplete as he had stepped just out of bounds.

But after Brown’s touchdown made the game 28-24, the Saints’ defense, which had been playing far below its standards, suddenly locked things down. On Pittsburgh’s final three possessions, the Saints forced a fumble, forced a turnover on downs, and then forced another fumble, giving Brees the time he needed to find Michael Thomas for a go-ahead, 1-yard touchdown pass.

In a battle of potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks, both Roethlisberger and Brees surpassed 300 yards, and neither threw an interception despite both being forced to shoulder much of the load as neither team’s running game did much.

Brown and Smith-Schuster paced the Steelers’s offensive players, while Thomas led New Orleans with 11 catches for 109 yards.

Going into the final week of the season, the Saints have nothing to play for and will probably rest their starters at home against Carolina. The Steelers, meanwhile, will not only need to beat Cincinnati but will have to hope Indianapolis and Tennessee, the teams ahead of them in the wild-card race, falter.

“We’re playing pretty good football, but it might not matter,” said Roethlisberger, adding, “We’ve got to take care of business next week with A.F.C. North football coming to our house.”

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