Saints clinch NFC's No. 1 seed after late mistakes doom Steelers in critical loss

Yahoo Sports

The New Orleans Saints clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed in thrilling fashion Sunday while delivering a body blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff chances with a 31-28 win.

New Orleans capitalized on critical Steelers mistakes down the stretch and scored the game-winning touchdown on a pass from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas with 1:25 remaining. With the loss, the Steelers dropped out of the playoff picture as the Baltimore Ravens took control of the AFC North.

Late mistakes doom Steelers

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The Steelers had multiple chances to ice the game in the fourth quarter and a chance tie or take the lead at the end, but made critical mistakes on each of their final three drives.

With Pittsburgh leading 28-24 late in the fourth quarter, running back Stevan Ridley fumbled at the Saints 35, and the home team recovered. But Pittsburgh’s defense and special teams unit bailed Ridley out.

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints can take it easy in Week 17 after clinching the NFC’s top seed. (Getty)
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints can take it easy in Week 17 after clinching the NFC’s top seed. (Getty)

New Orleans drove 33 yards to set up a 50-yard Wil Lutz field goal attempt after the fumble recovery, but L.J. Fort blocked the attempt to give Pittsburgh another chance to milk the clock.

Pittsburgh took over at its own 37, but couldn’t manage a first down, setting up fourth-and-5 with 4:11 remaining. That’s where head coach Mike Tomlin decided on a huge roll of the dice.

Risky fake punt fails

He sent the Pittsburgh punt team out. But the snap went to fullback Roosevelt Nix on a fake punt. Nix ran up the middle and celebrated as if he had converted the first down.

But he didn’t, and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.

Saints capitalize

This time the Saints took advantage, taking over on the Pittsburgh 46-yard line and running a 10-play drive that ended with the Thomas touchdown.

New Orleans needed a fourth-down pass interference call on Joe Haden and a third-and-20 conversion on a 25-yard Brees pass to Ted Ginn to get there.

One last Pittsburgh miscue

The Steelers threatened on their final possession, but JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled at the Saints 35-yard-line after catching a Roethlisberger pass that would have set Pittsburgh up near field goal range.

New Orleans recovered and went into victory formation to seal the win.

Early controversy

The game wasn’t without controversy as New Orleans got on the board in the first quarter after Haden was called for the first of his two pass interference penalties on a Saints fourth-down attempt. Haden barely touched Alvin Kamara in the end zone on the 34-yard pass attempt, but was flagged anyway without appearing to have actually committed a penalty.

Instead of gaining possession on downs, Pittsburgh watched Mark Ingram give the Saints a 7-3 lead on the next play after the penalty set New Orleans up with first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

Brees, Roethlisberger duel

Brees was his normally efficient self, throwing for 326 yards while hitting on 27-of-39 pass attempts. His first and only touchdown was on the go-ahead score to Thomas.

Roethlisberger completed 33-of-50 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions while Antonio Brown (180 yards, two touchdowns) and Smith-Schuster (115 yards) both had big days catching passes. But the offensive explosion wasn’t enough to overcome the late Steelers miscues.

Tough road for Steelers

The loss drops Pittsburgh to 8-6-1 and sets up a difficult scenario next week to make the playoffs. The Steelers will need to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and depend on the Cleveland Browns to top the Ravens to win the AFC North.

They can also earn the AFC’s final wild card berth in the long-shot scenario that the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts tie next week, which would leave them all at 9-6-1 and Pittsburgh holding the tiebreaker over both teams.

“We made the bed, we’ll lay in it,” Tomlin said after the game. “I’ll expect us to lay in it very well and perform. We’ll control what it is that we can control and that’s our preparation to play next week. All other things out of our control, we won’t worry much about.”

The Saints, meanwhile, can take it easy and rest up in Week 17 with home-field advantage clinched throughout the NFC playoffs.

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