The Pittsburgh Steelers looked poised for a shot at overtime Sunday with a late march against the Denver Broncos to set up first-and-goal at the 3-yard line.
A first-down pass attempt from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster went long. A second-down run by James Conner was stuffed after one yard.
Then disaster struck.
Broken play leads to critical turnover
Roethlisberger took the snap in shotgun when Conner collided with him on what looked like a bumbled play fake. Roethlisberger remained upright, but threw a dump pass into traffic that was intercepted by Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris in the end zone.
The pass appeared intended for Antonio Brown, who was crossing toward the back of the end zone. There wasn’t another eligible Steelers receiver in sight.
But it was nowhere near Brown. The play looked doomed from the moment Conner and Roethlisberger got crossed up, and led to an ill-advised pass under pressure.
Brown had broken free on his route, but Roethlisberger’s pass never had a chance.
Steelers lose ground to Patriots in playoff race
The 24-17 loss drops the Steelers to 7-3-1, which keeps them in control of the AFC North, but puts the conference’s pair of first-round playoff byes in control of the 9-2 Kansas City Chiefs and 8-3 New England Patriots.
For the Broncos, it keeps their long-shot wild card hopes alive as they improve to 5-6 with their second straight win.
Turnovers prove costly for Pittsburgh
It was a game full of costly Pittsburgh turnovers, any of which could be pointed to as the difference in the outcome.
Trailing 3-0, Pittsburgh appeared to have a go-ahead touchdown early in the second quarter when tight end Xavier Grimble took a Roethlisberger pass 23 yards before being met at the goal line by Broncos safety Will Parks. Parks’ hit knocked the ball loose and through the end zone. Instead of a touchdown, the play resulted in a touchback for the Broncos, who took over possession.
Second big interception by Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger’s late interception was his second of the day. His first came with the Steelers leading 17-10 on third-and-3 at the Broncos’ 47. Denver cornerback Chris Harris picked off the pass intended for Antonio Brown and returned it to the Pittsburgh 43-yard line.
A pair of passes from Case Keenum to Emmanuel Sanders later, and the Broncos had tied the game.
Another promising Steelers drive was thwarted by a Conner fumble late in the third quarter. On second-and-16 at the Denver 46-yard line, Conner took a short pass from Roethlisberger 23 yards before coughing the ball up on a fumble recovered by Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby.
Instead of being in position for a go-ahead field goal or touchdown, the Steelers gave the ball up with the game tied at 17.
Steelers dominated ball, still lost
The Steelers dominated the Broncos in total offense, posting 527 yards to 308 yards. But they couldn’t overcome their myriad turnovers.
If they don’t rally for a first-round playoff bye, there’s a good chance they can look to Sunday as the reason why.
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