PITTSBURGH – When the Steelers release their highlight film of the 2013 season, it will include plenty of good plays and a number of bad ones.
It could also be called, “A Game of Inches.”
If you ever had any doubt about how razor thin the difference between winning and losing in the NFL really is, just look at the Steelers’ 34-28 loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins.
A back-and-forth game with huge momentum swings, the Steelers came up just short in the end – by about half an inch.
That’s how far wide receiver Antonio Brown’s left foot stepped out of bounds as he attempted to get around Miami safety Chris Clemons on the game’s final play, one in which six different Steelers touched the football.
The play began with a pass from Bquarterback en Roethlisberger to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to midfield and ended with Roethlisberger lateralling the ball to Brown, who scooted up the Miami sideline.
Brown sprinted past safety Reshad Jones and had only Clemons to beat. He juked Clemons to the inside, then went back to the sideline to get around a diving tackle attempt.
As Brown ran into the end zone, the side judge came running in to rule – correctly, as it would turn out – that the edge of Brown’s left foot had touched the sideline at the Miami 12-yard line.
Game, and season, over.
“I thought I had it clean,” said Brown, who had five receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown while joining Hines Ward as the only players in franchise history with 90 receptions in a season.
“I thought I separated really good getting to the sideline – but it didn’t seem quite enough.”
That’s been the story time and again in the Steelers’ season. Nothing they do seems to be quite enough. And even when they apparently pull off a miraculous finish, they find a way to mess it up.
“Disappointed, frustrated, whatever words you want to use,” said Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. “When you’re consistent at being inconsistent, you’re going to get a 5-8 record.”
And that is where the Steelers find themselves today.
At 5-8, they can forget about the playoffs, though, mathematically, they have not yet been eliminated.
The reality is that the Steelers were eliminated from postseason contention when they opened 0-4. A consistently inconsistent team just doesn’t have the ability to overcome a start like that.
And, as the Steelers showed Sunday, they certainly don’t know how to finish.
The defense gave up several big plays to allow the Dolphins to regain momentum. And the offense, with a chance to ice the game with just over seven minutes remaining, had two critical penalties – a false start on center Cody Wallace and an ineligible player downfield call on Ramon Foster – that forced the Steelers to punt the ball back to Miami with 4:31 remaining.
A 55-yard run by Daniel Thomas and a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charles Clay later, and the Steelers trailed 31-28.
“We’ve got to finish them off right there,” said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. “We made mistakes on offense that kept us from finishing the game off on offense. If we go up 35-24, the game is done.”
Instead, the Steelers set the stage for another epic failure in a season full of them.
“That would have been one of the greatest plays ever,” said wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders of Brown’s near score on the game’s final play.
Instead, it just goes down as a footnote as a play that nearly worked in a lost season.
“I really couldn’t tell,” said Cotchery. “I felt like he (scored). But I didn’t have the angle that the referees did. Those guys get paid to do that job and do a great job of it.”
“I don’t know if he stepped out or not. But they say he did, and we sit here at 5-8.”
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.