The Steelers’ bold decision to try a fake punt disastrously backfired, and it could wind up costing them a spot in the playoffs

The Steelers celebrated prematurely after mistakenly thinking they had converted a crucial fake punt — in reality, it may have been the play that ended their season.

caption
The Steelers celebrated prematurely after mistakenly thinking they had converted a crucial fake punt — in reality, it may have been the play that ended their season.
source
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

  • The Steelers lost to the Saints on Sunday in a game with major playoff ramifications for both teams.
  • The key play of the game came from the Steelers, with head coach Mike Tomlin opting for a gutsy fake punt call late in the fourth quarter that ultimately backfired.
  • While the Steelers’ chances of making the postseason were 75% heading into Sunday, after the loss and wins by other teams in the AFC playoff race, they enter Week 17 with just a 16% chance of playing into January.

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the New Orleans Saints 31-28 on Sunday in a game that carried major implications for both teams’ playoff prospects.

Possibly the most crucial decision of the night came from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. After a second-half surge, the Steelers held a 28-24 lead with four minutes left in the game.

Facing fourth-and-5 close to midfield, Tomlin called a fake punt – a move that if successful, could give the Steelers a chance to seal the game without giving the ball back to Drew Brees.

It was a gutsy call, but unfortunately for the Steelers, it was unsuccessful.

The Saints snuffed out the direct snap and tackled fullback Roosevelt Nix short of the line to gain. Embarrassingly, Nix got up from the scrum believing he had gained enough for a first down, leading him to awkwardly celebrate the play.

The Saints would take the ball over from midfield and drive to score the go-ahead touchdown, with Brees connecting with Michael Thomas with fewer than 90 seconds left in the game.

Still, Pittsburgh would have one last chance to come back.

Ben Roethlisberger pushed the hurry-up offense well, leading the Steelers into New Orleans territory with 40 seconds remaining. Already in range for an admittedly long attempt, Roethlisberger likely needed just a few more yards to give the Steelers a shot at overtime.

He found wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who got the ball well within range, but fumbled the ball away before hitting the ground, turning the ball and the game over to the Saints.

Read more: The 40 most dominant athletes of 2018

The ramifications of the game were huge for both teams.

For the Saints, the win means the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through New Orleans, with Drew Brees and company securing homefield advantage throughout the postseason – a recipe that led the team to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIV just nine years ago.

Meanwhile, the Steelers are now on the outside looking in for the AFC playoffs. Entering the game, FiveThirtyEight gave Pittsburgh a 75% chance of making the postseason. But after their loss and wins by Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Tennessee, they’re left with just a 16% chance of playing meaningful football into January.

The Steelers are now eliminated from contention for a wild-card spot, and can only make the playoffs by winning the AFC North – needing a win and a Ravens loss in Week 17 in order to do so.

Pittsburgh’s decision to attempt the fake punt was an aggressive one, and likely would have been seen as a great call had it succeeded.

But now needing something of a miracle to keep their season going beyond next week, there’s a good chance it’s a decision they’d like back.