New Orleans Saints clinch NFC’s No. 1 seed — with huge assists from Steelers’ self-inflicted wounds

December 24, 2018

The Steelers aren’t new to self-inflicted wounds, but their latest reached a new level of shocking in Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints, who earned the No. 1 overall seed while potentially knocking Pittsburgh out of the postseason.

In a virtual must-win game, holding a four-point lead in the final four-plus minutes in New Orleans on Sunday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin opted for a fake punt on fourth-and-5 at his own 42-yard-line. Fullback Roosevelt Nix gained only 4 yards, turning it over on downs.

Drew Brees’ Saints, with help from a questionable fourth-and-2 pass interference penalty on Joe Haden — one of Haden’s two controversial flags on the day — drove 46 yards for the game-winning score, a 7-yard touchdown to Michael Thomas.

With one final chance to tie the game and send it to overtime, or perhaps win the game in regulation, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled with 40 seconds remaining at the Saints 35-yard line in need of a field goal to tie the game.

The victory earned the 13-2 Saints the No. 1 seed and ensured that the NFC’s path to Super Bowl LIII goes through the Superdome. The 8-6-1 Steelers now need help next week to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

On the series prior to the Steelers’ botched fake punt, with Pittsburgh leading, 28-24, RB Stevan Ridley coughed up a fumble on third-and-2 after Jaylen Samuels had twice moved the chains with pile-driving runs. But Steelers LB L.J. Fort blocked Wil Lutz’s field-goal try, getting the Steelers the ball back with no real damage done.

The Steelers received incredible efforts by Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, who connected on 14 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns, including a remarkable fourth-and-15 sideline hookup on Pittsburgh’s last-ditch drive. Roethlisberger finished 33-of-50 for 380 yards and three touchdowns, leading consecutive scoring drives of 97, 75 and 66 yards prior to Pittsburgh melting down on its final three possessions, and accounting for every yard in a monster third quarter.

However, the Steelers also allowed the Saints to drive 50 yards in the final 40 seconds of the first half, directly on the heels of a 97-yard TD drive and two-point conversion to make it 14-all, and open the second half with an Alvin Kamara-fueled 75-yard TD drive to make it 24-14. And Haden was flagged at the goal line early in the first quarter, a phantom 33-yard DPI penalty while covering Alvin Kamara that led to Mark Ingram scoring the game’s first touchdown on the ensuing play.

Speaking of Kamara, he finished with 105 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, giving him 18 on the season to tie the Saints’ franchise record. His 31 and 42-yard receptions right before and after halftime, respectively, catalyzed both New Orleans scoring drives.

And the Steelers’ late mistakes cost them dearly. At 8-6-1, they now need to beat the Bengals at home and have the Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens on the road next week to win the AFC North. That’s become Pittsburgh’s only path to the postseason because either the Colts or Titans — both currently 9-6 — will finish 10-6 and secure the final wild card after the two clash in Nashville.

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