PITTSBURGH – The Steelers can’t seem to stay away from sideline controversies.
A week after head coach Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000 for being inches on the field during a kickoff return at Baltimore, Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown being inches out of bounds on the final play of a game all but ended any hopes of the Steelers reaching the postseason.
Miami got three touchdown passes from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and then barely kept Brown from scoring on the game’s final play, as the Dolphins defeated the Steelers at Heinz Field, 34-28, Sunday before a crowd of 52,489.
The victory improves Miami to 7-6 and allowed the Dolphins to keep pace with Baltimore (7-6), which pulled out a miracle victory of its own, scoring the game-winning touchdown with four seconds remaining against Minnesota, for the final wildcard spot in the AFC playoffs.
It was a spot for which the Steelers (5-8) had hoped to remain in contention.
“We understood what was at stake in terms of us and this football game,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers understood it, but couldn’t capitalize despite several chances, the last of which was a play that began with a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Emmanuel Sanders and then had five different players touch the ball – including Roethlisberger a second time – before it was put in the hands of Brown, Pittsburgh’s most explosive playmaker.
With no time remaining, Brown caught a lateral from Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 33-yard line and sprinted past the Miami bench. With only safety Chris Clemons standing between him and the end zone, Brown juked to the inside and ran to the outside, past the outstretched arms of a diving Clemons and into the end zone.
“Please step out of bounds,” was what Miami head coach Joe Philbin recalled thinking as the play unfolded.
Philbin’s plea was answered. The side judge immediately ruled that Brown’s left foot had grazed the sideline on his way to the end zone, ending the game.
“I knew he went into the end zone standing up,” said Tomlin. “I saw (the side judge’s) motion before (Brown) even went into the end zone. … He was very definitive and very clear about what he saw over there.”
“I think I need some blood pressure medicine or something,” Miami defensive end Cameron Wake said. “That’s December football.”
It was a see-saw ending to a game in which both teams were in control at different times.
After a slow start, Miami grabbed a 17-7 lead on its opening possession of the second half, getting a 4-yard touchdown run by Daniel Thomas, who had 105 yards on 16 carries.
But that 10-point lead evaporated quickly as Roethlisberger threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Brown on Pittsburgh’s next possession, and Troy Polamalu intercepted Tannehill at the Miami 19 two plays later and scored, diving into the end zone to give the Steelers a 21-17 advantage.
Unshaken by the mistake, Tannehill threw a 40-yard pass to tight end Charles Clay on third-and-4 from the Pittsburgh 25, then tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Brian Hartline to give the Dolphins a 24-21 lead.
The Steelers again answered, this time with Roethlisberger, who threw for 349 yards and three scores, firing a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery to put the Steelers back on top, 28-24.
Pittsburgh got the ball back at its own 37 with 7:51 remaining and tried to run out the clock.
After a first-down pass to the Miami 44, the Steelers were penalized on back-to-back plays, with center Cody Wallace, who was making his first career start, called for a false start and guard Ramon Foster drawing a flag for illegally being downfield on a screen pass to Cotchery that gained 12 yards.
“We’ve got to finish them off right there,” said Cotchery. “We made mistakes on offense that kept us from finishing the game off.”
Instead, the Steelers punted to Miami with 4:31 remaining and Thomas hurt them again, this time breaking off a 55-yard run to the Pittsburgh 16 before being dragged down from behind by cornerback William Gay.
“It was a bad job of tackling on our part,” said Gay. “We can’t give up those chunk plays like that.”
Tannehill then threw a touchdown pass to Clay, who had seven receptions for 97 yards and two scores, to give Miami a 31-28 lead with just under three minutes remaining.
The Steelers turned the ball over on downs deep in their own territory, giving the Dolphins a field goal to make the score 34-28, but keeping the game within one score.
“I thought if we went for it, then we had an opportunity to continue on,” said Tomlin. “If we didn’t, whatever was going to happen, was going to happen quickly, and we had an opportunity to have the ball at the end, which is what we did.”
Odds and end zones
Roethlisberger’s three touchdown passes give him 215 for his career, moving him past Terry Bradshaw (212) for the most in team history. … Brown had five catches for 137 yards. … Linebacker LaMarr Woodley returned after missing the three games. He made the first start of his career at right outside linebacker. Jason Worilds stayed at left outside linebacker and had eight tackles and two sacks. He has a team-high eight sacks. … The defensive touchdown was the fifth of Polamalu’s career. Only Rod Woodson (6) has more defensive touchdowns in team history. ... Former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace had two catches for 19 yards in his return to Pittsburgh.