On Sunday, December 17th, the Pittsburgh Steelers played the New England Patriots in a crucial AFC showdown to help determine the top seed for the playoffs. Late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers took over possession. On the first play of the drive, Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass to wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster that looked to be a short gain, but he evaded most of the Pats’ secondary and came out with a 69-yard catch. On the very next play, Big Ben threw a pass to the tight end, Jesse James, that was caught, for a Pittsburgh touchdown! Everyone was sure that it was a touchdown, even most of the Patriots. Normally, the other team will signal the sign for an incomplete pass when the play is even close. No Patriots player did that. Even the Pats’ coach, Bill Belichick, looked like he wasn’t in the mood to dispute the call. Tony Romo, the analyst, said confidently, “This is going to stand. What a touchdown!” When the ref announced the ruling that it was overturned, Romo said, ” Ooooooooh, oh my god!!”
The reason that the touchdown was overturned is that a player who completes the catch must “survive the ground.” Jesse James appeared to catch the ball, pull it back in, then reach it to the end zone. He had control of the ball in the end zone, but then the ball hit the ground and became loose, even though it was still in his hands.
Even with the botched call, the Steelers were only down by three, and they were definitely in field goal range, so they could just run down the clock and make the field goal, right? Wrong. Nobody really considered that it would be an incomplete pass, so Ben Roethlisberger didn’t even talk with Todd Haley, the offensive coordinator. The Steelers picked up a yard on the next play, so it was third down with the clock running. The normal thing to do would be to spike the ball and bring up a chip shot field goal to send the game into overtime. Instead, the Steelers tried a fake spike. When a fake spike works, it is because the defense is on their heels and thinks that the QB will throw the ball into the ground and then they can focus again. The Pats were less confused than the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass that was tipped up into the air and caught… by the Patriots. If the play to Jesse James had stood, the Patriots would have had 28 seconds to score a touchdown. With quarterback Tom Brady on your team, it could have happened. But everyone can agree that the call changed the whole game.