The four plays that concluded the greatest game of the 2017 regular season distilled the NFL down to its modern day essence—frantic, beautiful throws from an aging Hall of Fame quarterback, mass confusion caused by a nitpicking team of officials, and, in the end, chaos.
A disorganized, wild face plant just shy of perfection. There were fake spikes, diving catches and—of course—a deep dive into the NFL’s Encyclopedia Britannica rulebook to decide what a catch might be.
Join us, as we look at the most fascinating 52 seconds of the NFL season—a length of time that may very well have decided which of the AFC’s best teams gets a first-round bye and clinches home-field advantage throughout the playoffs:
(0:52 left on the clock): First-and-10 from the Patriot 20-yard line: While the team’s most important offensive playmaker lay in the hospital, JuJu Smith-Schuster makes a push for Steeler history on a crossing route just a few yards past the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers were trailing by three. Schuster nabbed a short pass with five yards of space on Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe. It was a similar “pick” type play that foiled Tom Brady and New England earlier in the game, though this time a fresh-legged rookie was in possession—without a defender in sight.
The smart play was to gun it for the sidelines and set up another last-second Steelers field goal, another Chris Boswell miracle. But as Smith-Schuster was approaching the chalk, two Patriots defenders forcing him there—Jordan Richards and Devin McCourty—collide with one another. Smith-Schuster breaks back toward midfield, kicking off a shoelace grab by Rowe. He’s finally stopped while bulling into a trio of Patriots defensive backs at the 10-yard line.
(0:33): First-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line: The Steelers are in a shotgun formation, toying with the Patriots defenders by splitting Le’Veon Bell out wide as a receiver and bringing Darrius Heyward-Bey in as a running back next to Roethlisberger. Tight end Jesse James flashes open just two yards shy of the end zone and Roethlisberger fires a pass to James’s left, allowing the tight end to grab the ball mid-jump and lunge into the end zone untouched by defenders. Roethlisberger, Mike Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva pack themselves into a tight circle and embrace. Heinz Field, once marred in anxious silence, breaks out into a full-blown cacophony.
(0:28): The Previous Play Is Under Review: An audible groan lifts from the stands. On television, broadcaster Jim Nantz says “there’s no doubt it’s going to hold up.” Roethlisberger kneels on the sideline in what looks like a modified runner’s stretch, wobbling back and forth. James, back on the field for a theoretical extra point, fingers the top of his facemask. The longer this theoretically simple review takes, the more ominous it becomes.
“After reviewing the play, the receiver, in the end zone, did not survive the ground. It’s an incomplete pass. It’ll be Pittsburgh’s ball, second down and 10, at the 10-yard line, the game clock is correct and will start on the next snap.”
Roethlisberger, seeming to almost expect the league’s equivalent to a banana in the tailpipe, jogs back onto the field emotionless. James bends over and puts his helmet in his hands.
“I’m not going to cry over spilled milk and and all of that crap and talk about replay. I ain’t going to do it,” Tomlin would later say when asked about the moment.
(0:28): Second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line: Back in a traditional 11 personnel shotgun set with Le’Veon Bell next to Roethlisberger, the quarterback snaps the ball, drops two steps and has to sidestep the charge by defensive lineman Eric Lee. Heyward-Bey runs a crossing route with enough open space and momentum toward the sidelines to force a Roethlisberger pass. He gets tackled after three yards, just short of the sideline. The Steelers have no timeouts.
(0:21): Third-and-goal from the Pittsburgh seven-yard line: Roethlisberger immediately starts signaling for a spike. Quickly but calmly, Pittsburgh assembles in formation. Then, Roethlisberger looks to his outside receivers and starts tapping his helmet, clearly signaling a pass play. He snaps the ball and opts for the fake spike anyway, though only one Steelers wideout—Eli Rodgers—runs an actual route. Smith-Schuster and Heyward-Bey stand near the line of scrimmage while Rodgers runs a slant into the end zone. He calls for the ball just as he breaks the plane and Roethlisberger fires into a horde of Patriots. The ball is tipped by Rowe and bearhugged midair by Duron Harmon.
(0:05): Game over: The Patriots prepare victory formation ahead by three and clinch the division with the inside track for home field advantage. Roethlisberger plops onto the grass like a tired child, legs outstretched as he unbuckles his wristband, gloves and helmet. Patriots defensive backs make airplane motions with their hands as they coast around the field while James, hands on hips, walks slowly toward the sideline.
“It wasn’t a fake spike,” Roethlisberger would tell reporters afterward. “I was yelling ‘clock it’ because I felt that was the thing to do, to clock it and get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline: ‘Don’t clock it, don’t clock it.’”