For a few fleeting moments Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers were on the verge of getting back into playoff position.
Instead, their postseason dreams are all but dead after a frustrating, yet near-miraculous finish.
The Miami Dolphins moved into a tie for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot when Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown stepped on the left sideline on the last play of the game, negating what looked to be an improbable touchdown and handing the visitors a 34-28 win at snowy Heinz Field.
Miami (7-6) took the lead for good when receiver Charles Clay slipped attempted tackles by Troy Polamalu and Cortez Allen on his go-ahead 12-yard touchdown, making it 31-28 with 2:53 left. Daniel Thomas‘ 55-yard run across the slippery field set up the score, and when the Steelers (5-8) turned the ball over on downs on their next possession, Caleb Sturgis‘ chip-shot field goal put the Dolphins up six with about a minute to go.
The Steelers couldn’t move the ball on the first three downs of their final drive, but they tried a desperation play on fourth down that nearly led to a stunning touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger‘s long completion to Emmanuel Sanders made its way via laterals back to Big Ben, who flung what was ruled a legal backward pass to Brown near midfield.
Brown appeared to have a clear lane to the end zone, but barely stepped on the white paint near the Miami 15-yard line. The remaining fans at Heinz Field celebrated until the officials made it clear the Steelers had lost. Coupled with Baltimore’s wild win, Pittsburgh finds itself behind the Ravens, Jets, Titans and Dolphins for the second wild-card spot.
Roethlisberger enjoyed a productive afternoon in the wintry weather, which was at its worst in the first half. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which was a 43-yard catch-and-run by Brown that put Pittsburgh up 28-24 early in the fourth quarter.
Brown (77 yards) and Jerricho Cotchery (43) each had a team-high four catches. Cotchery nabbed a touchdown to keep the Steelers close in the third, holding on after Roethlisberger squeezed in a red-zone dart. Polamalu followed with a high-jumping 19-yard interception return that put Pittsburgh up 21-17.
But the Dolphins offense, led by second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, was resilient. Tannehill went 15 of 25 for just 160 yards, but he completed touchdown tosses to Clay and Brian Hartline to counteract Polamalu’s pick.
Hartline’s 4-yard touchdown catch restored the Dolphins’ lead late in the third before Brown’s electrifying jaunt put the Steelers ahead briefly. Thomas ran for 105 yards and a score, highlighted by the long gallop on Miami’s second-to-last drive.
The loss overshadowed what was an effective day for Pittsburgh defenders Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds, both of whom have come into their own lately. Heyward made a team-best nine tackles, including a sack, from his defensive line position, and linebacker Worilds had seven tackles, two of which were for losses.
Sanders’ 5-yard touchdown reception put the Steelers on top late in the first quarter, but the Dolphins scored 17 consecutive points to take a 10-point lead on their first drive of the second half. The falling snow didn’t seem to adversely affect either offense, as defenders often seemed a step slow on the unsure footing.
The Steelers host the AFC North-leading Bengals (9-4) next Sunday night. The game will be broadcast nationwide on NBC.