- Associated Press - Sunday, December 17, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Mike Tomlin didn’t want to risk overtime. Neither did Ben Roethlisberger.

So with the clock ticking down and a chance to end years of torment by the New England Patriots just 7 yards away, Tomlin gave Roethlisberger permission to ad lib.

“We play and play to win,” Tomlin said. “That’s what we do.”

So do the Patriots. The defending Super Bowl champions weren’t fooled by Roethlisberger’s fake spike, turning it into a game-sealing interception that sent the Steelers to a 27-24 loss. That cost Pittsburgh (11-3) the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Roethlisberger’s lone mistake spoiled a near flawless day by the Pittsburgh offense that showcased how far the Steelers have come since getting blown out by the Patriots in the AFC championship game 11 months ago.

Even after star Antonio Brown exited in the second quarter with a left calf injury that left his status going forward uncertain, Pittsburgh kept rolling. The Steelers controlled the ball for 35 minutes, piled up 413 yards and seemed to have an answer every time the Patriots challenged.

Sure, it was closer. It still wasn’t enough.

“I’m not into moral victories right now,” Roethlisberger said. “We just lot a game. It doesn’t sit well. But the season is not over.”

Roethlisberger’s decision to throw came two snaps after the Steelers (11-3) thought they’d beaten the Patriots for the first time since 2011.

Tight end Jesse James caught a pass from Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 1 and stretched his 6-foot-7 frame across the goal line for the apparent go-ahead touchdown. As the largest crowd to watch an NFL game at Heinz Field roared, referee Tony Corrente went under the hood to take a look. Upon review, officials overturned the score, ruling the pass incomplete because the ball did not “survive the ground.”

“As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground,” Corrente said afterward. “That’s the end of it at that point.”

James was convinced he’d scored his fourth touchdown of the season. Instead, he struggled to put into words how the rules appeared to be at odds with his instincts.

“I had my knee down, turned up the field,” he said. “Whether they consider that a football move or not, that’s up for them to decide.”

The Steelers weren’t done. Roethlisberger found Darrius Heyward-Bey for a short gain when play resumed, but Heyward-Bey failed to get out of bounds. Roethlisberger hurried the Steelers to the line. Rather than spike it to stop the clock and set up a chip-shot field goal for Chris Boswell, who hasn’t missed a kick at home all season, Roethlisberger nodded to wide receiver Eli Rogers.

At the snap Rogers ran a short crossing route a couple of yards deep in the end zone. Roethlisberger’s pass caromed off Eric Rowe and into the hands of safety Duron Harmon.

“I think it was (Malcolm Butler) on me,” Rogers said. “He just kind of grabbed me and changed how I was going to catch the ball. I thought it was a flag, but it’s all good.”

Roethlisberger initially said he was told to go for the win by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, then gave a more vague explanation when asked for specifics.

“Maybe they wanted a field goal,” Roethlisberger said. “Maybe they wanted to tie it. Maybe that’s on me. Maybe I should have just clocked it, whatever it is. We’re not going to look back and second-guess anything or anybody.”

They might be the only ones. The Steelers would have clinched at least a first-round bye with a victory and would have earned home-field advantage with a win over the final two weeks or a Jacksonville loss. Now Pittsburgh must find a way to recover from another gut punch at the hands of the Patriots, and do it with Brown’s status uncertain.

The perennial Pro Bowler became the first player in NFL history to reach 100 catches in five straight seasons when he caught a 5-yard catch on Pittsburgh’s second possession. His fringe MVP candidacy may have ended in the second quarter when his left leg got tangled up while he competed for a catch in the end zone. Brown couldn’t put any weight on his left leg as he made his way off the field. He was taken to a hospital for further evaluation.

Though Rogers, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined for 11 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns, they’re not Brown. Nobody is. And now they face the prospect of having to go on the road if they want a rematch with the Patriots in the postseason.

“We’ll see them again,” Rogers said. “The outcome will be different.”

___

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