PITTSBURGH — The rain fell steadily and the emotions swung wildly Sunday for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots and most everyone else gathered at Heinz Field.
The spirits of the Steelers and their fans were buoyed by the appearance of injured linebacker Ryan Shazier at the game. Their hopes sagged when wide receiver Antonio Brown was helped from the field and subsequently taken to a hospital with what was described as a calf injury.
Then the Steelers somehow found ways to win, then lose, then win, then lose the most significant game of the NFL season so far. They fell to the Patriots, 27-24, by succumbing to the late-game magic of Tom Brady and the return to prominence of the sport's notorious catch rule via a key instant replay reversal.
"It's a game of emotion," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
That certainly was the case Sunday. Brady, losing his quarterback duel with Roethlisberger for most of the afternoon, took the Patriots down the field when it mattered most. He led a 77-yard touchdown drive that culminated with an eight-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis with 56 seconds remaining. Brady then threw a two-point conversion pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the New England defense held on from there — barely — as the Patriots regained the upper hand in the race for the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
"It was just one of those days," Brady said. "It goes back and forth, and you play right to the end. The ball bounces some weird ways. I'm glad it bounced our way today."
The Patriots, coming off a stunning loss Monday night at Miami, improved to 11-3. They are tied with the Steelers but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
"Obviously the Patriots are the team to beat," Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "They've proven year in and year out that they dominate the AFC. For us, if we're going to accomplish our goals, we're going to have to beat them at some point. We had a pretty good chance today. Definitely heartbroken to some degree. But we'll have to [regroup] and get better. We have to be a better team to beat the New England Patriots the next time."
The Patriots now control the race for home-field advantage in what many regard as an inevitable rematch between these teams in the AFC title game.
"We'll see them again in a couple weeks," Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant said.
The Steelers appeared to answer the Patriots' late-game touchdown with one of their own. Roethlisberger followed a 69-yard catch and run by rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with an apparent 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James with 28 seconds left. But a replay review concluded that James did not have control of the football as he went to the turf, resulting in an incompletion.
"I reached the ball out," James said. "I felt good about it. But it's the National Football League. I can't control that."
The wild final sequence ended with Roethlisberger throwing a tipped-pass interception to New England's Duron Harmon with five seconds to go after faking a clock-stopping, third-down spike.
"I think all the great quarterbacks do that," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "If they can catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they're going to try to do it. So you could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to line guys up."
Roethlisberger said the spike-that-wasn't actually wasn't his idea.
"It wasn't a fake spike," he said. "I was yelling, 'Clock it!' because I felt like that was the thing to do was clock it, get yourself one play. And it came from the sideline: 'Don't clock it! Don't clock it!' Well, at that time, everyone thinks it's a clock. So you don't have time to try and get everyone lined up. So I tried to — Eli [Rogers] saw that. He kind of ran a quick slant in there. At that time, you've just got to try to make a play. I didn't make a good enough throw."
Fans gave a loud ovation when Shazier, who suffered a spinal cord injury while making a tackle during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this month, was shown on the stadium video board. He appeared to be sitting in a suite in the stadium. Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery and has begun rehabilitation, and the Steelers placed him on the season-ending injured reserve list.
"It was awesome," Roethlisberger said. "I would have loved to have been able to win this one for him. Just to see him here was really cool."
Roethlisberger threw for two touchdowns on the day. Tailback Le'Veon Bell added a touchdown run as the Steelers had to compensate for the loss of Brown from their offense.
He was hurt amid of tangle of bodies — and legs — on a second-quarter incompletion in the end zone. Brown remained on the turf and had to be helped by members of the Steelers' medical staff to the sideline. He appeared to be putting no weight on his left leg. He was taken to the medical tent on the Steelers' sideline and then, soon after, to the locker room.
The team initially announced that Brown had suffered a calf injury and his return to the game was questionable. But he was taken to a hospital soon thereafter, and the Steelers declared him out for the game.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said afterward he did not have "a lot of information" on Brown's injury. It was one of many issues with which the Steelers were left to deal.
"Just not quite enough to finish it," Tomlin said. "Such is life sometimes in the NFL."
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