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AFC North recap and updated standings heading into NFL Week 16

The catch that was not likely cost Pittsburgh home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
Jesse James nearly won the game for the Steelers.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Sunday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots will go down as one of the greatest games ever played.

And, if you are a true Cincinnati Bengals fan, you cannot help but feeling a certain sense of satisfaction at the outcome. Man, it felt good to see Pittsburgh on the other end of the extreme disappointment for a change.

And, before I go any further, let’s not forget about JuJu Smith-Schuster, who publicly declared after his blind-side hit on Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and the subsequent taunt, publicly declared, “I apologize for standing over him. That's not me,” Smith-Schuster said. “I’m better than that. It's very unsportsmanlike conduct and I hope he feels better and gets better.”

Note to Smith-Schuster: You lied.

After Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant made a one-handed catch for a four-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 17-10 lead Sunday night, Smith-Schuster and Bryant reenacted the block, and the taunt, that Smith-Schuster laid on Burfict less than two weeks before.

Yes, JuJu, it is you.

Pittsburgh had long since locked up the AFC North, so the loss simply drops the Steelers behind the Patriots in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Baltimore kept its playoff hopes alive with a 27-10 win over the hapless Cleveland Browns, while the Bengals fell to their third straight loss after getting embarrassed by the Minnesota Vikings, 34-7.

The Steelers-Patriots game gave you everything you look for in a football game – momentum swings, great catches, big hits and big plays. And it featured the kind of emotional ups and downs usually reserved for vintage playoff games.

Tom Brady and the Patriots took over at their own 23-yard-line with 2:06 remaining, and marched straight down the field on the strength of three Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski before Dion Lewis charged in from eight yards away to give New England a 25-24 lead. Brady hit Gronkowski for the two-point conversion, and the Patriots led 27-24 with just 56 seconds left – plenty of time if your name is Ben Roethlisberger.

On the very first play, Roethlisberger hit Smith-Schuster on a short crossing route over the middle, and Smith-Schuster ran away from the New England defense for a 69-yard gain that gave the Steelers a first down at the Patriots’ 10-yard-line.

Roethlisberger then found a wide open Jesse James over the middle, who fell into the end zone untouched for a touchdown. The stadium erupted, Pittsburgh players swamped James in celebration, and New England players hung their heads in defeat.

But wait. Something was wrong. The officials would not allow Pittsburgh to kick the extra point, and the game was delayed while the officials in the replay booth in New York considered.

Finally, several minutes later, an official came out onto the field and waved the play off. When James hit the ground, the ball came loose. Therefore, by rule, it was an incomplete pass.

Article 3 of the NFL Rulebook provides, in pertinent part, that:

“A forward pass is complete . . . if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. Secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. Touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. Maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps (see 3-2-7-Item 2).”

The officials ruled that James had not maintained control of the ball and, as such, the pass was incomplete.

But the game was far from over. Pittsburgh, even though it was out of timeouts, still had the ball with 28 seconds left. Roethlisberger his Darrius Heyward-Bey for three yards, but Heyward-Bey could not get out of bounds and the clock kept running.

The Steelers hurriedly got to the line, and Roethlisberger appeared to fake “clocking the ball.” Clocking the ball is when a quarterback simply throws the ball into the ground to stop the clock. Doing so would have allowed Pittsburgh to line up for the tying field goal and send the game into overtime.

Instead, Roethlisberger pulled the ball back and fired a pass over the middle intended for Eli Rogers, who was blanketed by defenders. The pass was tipped and intercepted by New England’s Duron Harmon, and the game was over. Talk about an emotional roller coaster!

Cleveland actually led the Ravens by a score of 7-3 midway through the second quarter, and was only down 17-10 at the half. But Baltimore’s suffocating defense made sure that the Browns would get no closer. The Ravens got a strip-sack of Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer for a touchdown midway through the third quarter and added a Justin Tucker field goal for the final margin.

Kizer had another miserable day at the helm of the Browns as he completed 20 of 37 passes for 146 yards and two interceptions, and finished with an overall rating of 41.0. Cleveland went three-and-out on three occasions in the second half, had one possession end with the fumble, another ended with an interception, and Kizer got stopped on 4th-and-1 at the Ravens’ 39-yard-line on another.

Isaiah Crowell provided one of the few bright spots for Cleveland when he rushed for 72 yards on just five carries. Josh Gordon once again led Cleveland receivers with five catches for 47 yards, but was unable to find his way into the end zone against the stingy Baltimore defense.

Here’s a look at the updated standings:

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3, 5-0 in division, 8-2 in AFC)
  2. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, 3-2 in division, 6-4 in AFC)
  3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9, 2-3 in division, 5-6 in AFC)
  4. Cleveland Browns (0-14, 0-5 in division, 0-11 in AFC)