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Saints 31, Steelers 28: Steelers aren’t ‘nice’ enough to make the playoffs

The Steelers aren’t likely to find a playoff berth under their tree this Christmas season.

They lost 31-28 to the Saints Sunday at New Orleans. The Saints (13-2) clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with the win. There’s nothing naughty about losing to an elite team like this.

But Santa knows when the Steelers are sleeping. He knows when they’re awake.

He knows when they lose to the Raiders, for goodness sake.

The Steelers (8-6-1) would have been on Santa’s “nice” list if they had overcome Tom Brady and Drew Brees in consecutive weeks. But to absorb losses to quality opponents, you need to beat teams like the Raiders and the Hue Jackson-coached Browns.

If the Steelers had beaten the Raiders (3-11) two weeks ago or even held their 21-7 fourth-quarter lead at Cleveland in Week 1, they’d be in the playoffs with a Week 17 win Sunday at home against the Bengals (6-9).

Instead, the Steelers will be scoreboard watching for the first time since 2015, like children peeking out their window hoping to see Santa and his reindeer flying across the sky.

The Steelers better hope the Browns (7-7-1) are their Secret Santa. They’ll need them to upset the Ravens (9-6) in Baltimore. That game and the Bengals-Steelers game both have been moved to 4:25 p.m.

If the Steelers and Ravens both win, the Ravens will win the AFC North but the Steelers still can hold out hope for a wild-card present. They’ll need the Colts and Titans to play to a tie Sunday night in Tennessee. Who says no one likes getting a tie for Christmas?

The Ravens, who have one extra day to prepare for the Browns, are in the driver’s seat because they topped the Chargers 22-10 Saturday night. They beat a championship contender on the road, something the Steelers could not do on Sunday.

There’s a good chance the Steelers would have beaten the Saints had they not fumbled the ball away twice in the fourth quarter.

Stevan Ridley was the first to give the ball away with the Steelers leading 28-24 with 10:21 left.

Ridley was absolved when the Steelers blocked a field goal attempt on the next drive. But the Steelers then gave the ball back to the Saints in their own territory on an ill-advised fake punt.

JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s fumble was the killer. With the Steelers trailing 31-28 and 41 seconds left, he had just caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger at the Saints’ 34, the fringes of field-goal territory, when Sheldon Rankins knocked the ball loose.

Game over.

Don’t blame Smith-Schuster for this loss, however. He’s fourth in the NFL with 1,389 receiving yards and tied for fifth with 106 receptions. Don’t even blame Ridley. The Steelers could blame bad officiating. The pass interference call on Joe Haden in the first quarter was a joke. It turned an incomplete pass on fourth-and-1 from the 34 into a first-and-goal from the Steelers’ 1. Mark Ingram took it in to give the Saints a 7-3 lead.

That call likely won’t be remembered throughout the offseason like the Jesse James call against the Patriots last year. But just as that reversed touchdown cost the Steelers the No. 1 seed in 2017, that call on Haden probably will cost the Steelers a playoff berth in 2018.

But shaking their fist at the officials can’t become an annual ritual for the Steelers. If the men in stripes aren’t going to do their job, then the Steelers need to get better at their own job.

That includes the coaching staff.

Ridley’s fumble came on a third-and-2 attempt. Since when is this journeyman a short-yardage specialist? And even if he were, the first-down marker was a lot more than an arm’s length away. A forward plunge wasn’t going to be enough to move the sticks.

And Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for the fake punt was understandable, but he was overthinking the situation.

The Steelers were up 28-24 when they lined up to punt on fourth-and-5 from their 42 with 4:11 left. Roosevelt Nix took the snap and tried to run for the first down but fell short.

“I thought where the game was, and the time that was left in the game, I thought that if we did not stop them that we would have an opportunity to have the ball last,” Tomlin said via ESPN.com.

The Steelers did have 1:25 to work with when Drew Brees threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas to give the Saints a 31-28 lead. However, the defense deserved a chance to try to stop Brees with the ball in Saints territory, not with its back to the wall.

Yes, the Steelers allowed 17 points in the first half and another seven on the Saints’ first possession of the second half. Alvin Kamara‘s 1-yard touchdown run increased the Saints’ lead to 24-14. After that, however, the Steelers forced two straight punts and T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt both sacked Brees in the third quarter.

With the defense holding the line, Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and the Steelers pulled ahead 28-24.

The score stayed that way after Ridley’s fumble when the Steelers forced the Saints to try a 50-yard field goal that was blocked by L.J. Fort with 6:17 left in the game.

This defense that stopped Tom Brady last week earned Tomlin’s trust in the second half Sunday. Maybe it would have had more of Tomlin’s trust if it had protected the Steelers’ fourth-quarter lead in Oakland.

Maybe the defense will get one more chance to rescue the Steelers’ playoff hopes. Santa’s going to check his list twice, but after Week 17 plays out the Steelers should be prepared to find a lump of Western Pennsylvania coal in their stocking. They’ll have to tear up their Christmas wish list and start a draft wish list, which they’ll have all of January to evaluate.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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