It was a play symbolic of a lost season, filled with hope and despair and all the things in between.
In the end, though, Antonio Brown’s frantic dash to the end zone after a five-lateral comedy of errors turned out to be nothing more than a stat-padding exercise in chaos.
When officials ruled Brown stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12 after time expired to assure the Dolphins of a 34-28 victory, any realistic hopes the Steelers (5-8) had of reaching the playoffs vanished.
Now, nothing but a long December and perhaps an even longer offseason awaits.
“We’ve still got jobs,” Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We’ve still got games to play. We’ve got no time to be whining, pouting, thinking about the season, talking about the playoffs.”
Now, there’s no point. Not after Pittsburgh allowed Miami (7-6) to feel right at home at snowy Heinz Field.
The Dolphins’ 34 points were a season high as they rolled up 360 yards total offense, including 80 on a four-play fourth-quarter drive that ended with Charles Clay running through a pair of arm tackles by Troy Polamalu and Cortez Allen for a 12-yard score that gave the Dolphins the lead for good with 2:53 remaining.
“I was trying to get the ball out,” Polamalu said. “I’ve just got to make the tackle.”
Caleb Sturgis tacked on a field goal to push Miami’s lead to six, but the Steelers had one last shot when they took over at their 20 with 1:08 left.
Three plays went nowhere and on fourth-and-4 from the Pittsburgh 26, things got crazy.
Emmanuel Sanders caught the pass and made it 20 yards before running into trouble. Sanders flipped it to Jerricho Cotchery, who handed it to Le’Veon Bell, who then tossed it to 330-pound tackle Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert gave it to Roethlisberger, who ran to the Pittsburgh 33 before throwing what appeared to be an illegal forward pass to Brown. No flags were thrown, however, as Brown raced down the sideline.
As the Dolphins gave chase, Brown crossed the goal line. While he celebrated, an official pointed at the turf and ruled Brown’s left foot stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12. That sent the resurgent Dolphins spilling onto the field after the franchise’s first win in Pittsburgh in 23 years, one that came in the unlikeliest of settings.
“I thought I had it clean,” Brown said. “I thought I separated really good getting to the sideline, but it didn’t seem quite enough.”
Roethlisberger passed for 349 yards and three scores, but the Steelers (5-8) lost their second straight game to assure the franchise of consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time this decade.
“It definitely [stinks] man,” Sanders said. “ What do you guys want me to say? I’m going to stop playing football? No.”
Daniel Thomas ran for 105 yards and a score for Miami. His zig-zag 55-yard burst at snowy Heinz Field set up Clay’s winner. Ryan Tannehill completed 20 of 33 passes for 201 yards and three scores for the Dolphins. Miami blew a 10-point third-quarter lead but rallied to win for the third time in its last four games.
“I think I need some blood pressure medicine or something,” Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake said. “That’s December football.”
The defeated capped a distracting 10 days for the Steelers. Head coach Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000 for interfering with Baltimore kickoff returner Jacoby Jones during a loss to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. The kind of furor overshadowed the fact what little margin for error the Steelers had heading into the final month was gone.
Now it’s vanished completely along with the hopes of climbing out of an 0-4 start, a deficit safety Ryan Clark said the team could have pulled itself out of with better play.
“If these [last] two weeks go different, if we beat Oakland,” he said. “We can point to a lot of situations where if we make plays in certain games 0-4 wasn’t insurmountable.”