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Steelers can’t catch break in crushing loss to Patriots

One word to describe the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the Patriots Sunday at Heinz Field?

Deflating.

A little gallows humor.

Let’s get this straight. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Rob Gronkowski, who shouldn’t have been playing two weeks after trying to decapitate the 5-foot-11, 192-pound TreDavious White, carries the Patriots on their game-winning drive. Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s counterpart, Steelers tight end Jesse James, gets a game-winning touchdown taken away from him.

James, who unlike Gronkowski does not seem to be a complete buffoon off the field, had control of the ball and it didn’t move in his hands until it crossed the goal line. In the NFL, however, catches aren’t determined through any real rules. They’re a matter of interpretation. Let’s just have three officials sitting at a table by the goal line American Idol-style and awarding touchdowns based on how much they’re “feeling it, bro.”

That said, let’s not blame this loss entirely on the officiating. Did Ben Roethlisberger or Todd Haley watch Super Bowl XLIX? Are either of them at least aware of what happened in that game? If Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson weren’t scrubbing tire marks from their faces after their 42-7 home loss to the Rams, they’d be flashing back to Wilson’s ill-advised pass in that game that Malcolm Butler intercepted in the end zone with 26 seconds left.

Do Roethlisberger and Haley think that a team that has won five Super Bowls in this century isn’t prepared for a fake spike? Instead of letting Chris Boswell, who has won four games this season, get the game into overtime, Roethlisberger ran a play and threw a pass intended for Eli Rogers in the end zone with five seconds left.

Unlike another Eli, however, this one isn’t the Patriots’ kryptonite even though he did catch a touchdown pass in the game. Eric Rowe knocked the ball away and Duron Harmon picked it out of the air to secure the win for the Patriots.

Their late-game stupidity aside, the Steelers (11-3) played well enough to beat the Patriots for the first time since the last time they actually did beat them in 2011. During this five-game losing streak to New England, the Steelers had never even led until Sunday.

That lead was 24-16 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had a chance to add to it or at least kill some serious clock, but a holding and a false start stalled a drive and the Patriots had the ball with 7:38 left.

The playing of “Renegade,” which has become strategic in the second half of Steelers home games, didn’t work this time. The Patriots (11-3) drove for a field goal. The Steelers went three-and-out for the first time in the game. Sean Davis dropped the game-clinching interception and Gronkowski caught three passes for 69 yards to set up Dion Lewis‘ game-winning touchdown in the stadium where he played his college ball.

The Steelers’ four previous losses to the Patriots were softened by a resignation that set in long before the final seconds. Not counting a garbage-time touchdown with two seconds left in the Steelers’ 28-21 loss to open the 2015 season, the Patriots have led by double digits in the final nine minutes in each of those games.

There was no such emotional buffer this time.

Oh, we did have an entire minute to come to terms with this defeat after Gronkowski caught the two-point conversion to make it 27-24, but then JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a pass from Roethlisberger and zig-zagged his way 69 yards to the Patriots’ 10-yard line. Then Roethlisberger threw the TD pass to James and resignation was lost in a sea of Terrible Towels. We were allowed to believe that the Steelers finally beat the Patriots until the namesake of a legendary robber was robbed of the game-winning touchdown.

Not only do the Steelers know how Carroll felt after Super Bowl XLIX, they also know how he felt almost exactly 20 years ago when he was coaching the Patriots.

For all of the Patriots’ domination of the Steelers over the last 16 years, this was the first time they had beaten them the way the Steelers beat them on Dec. 13, 1997.

Smith-Schuster was a year old, Chumbawamba was Tubthumping its way up the Billboard charts, Donald Trump was still married to Marla Maples and the Patriots played their home games at Foxboro Stadium, where the Steelers trailed 21-13 with two minutes left and no timeouts. Rather than punt from midfield, Drew Bledsoe thought it would be a better idea to throw a pass to no one in particular, and Steelers linebacker Kevin Henry intercepted it and returned it to the Patriots’ 18. The Steelers tied the game and won it in overtime on Norm Johnson‘s field goal.

That game decided the host when the teams met in the divisional playoffs three weeks later, a game the Steelers won 7-6 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Now, we might be looking at history repeating itself in reverse.

The Steelers will have to beat Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium to get to Super Bowl LII, if they can even reach the AFC championship game.

If the Steelers win their last two games, at Houston on Christmas and at home against Cleveland, they’ll have a first-round bye. But they’ll have to win those games without Antonio Brown.

When we’re done brooding about Sunday’s loss, we can wring our hands over Brown’s calf injury. The hope is that he can return for the playoffs.

With that in mind, a first-round bye would come in awfully handy.

Should we be impressed that the Steelers damn near beat the Patriots without Brown for three quarters and, for that matter, without Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden?

On one hand, it’s nice to think that the Steelers forged a mettle Sunday that will make them awfully hard to take out any time before the AFC championship game.

On the other hand, the Steelers can’t prove a thing until they beat the Patriots.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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