BY NATE WELLER
It’s the time of year where teams and fans alike look back at what could have been. No team will be wondering more than the Steelers, who after a 7-2-1 start to the season, were officially eliminated from the playoffs when the Colts and Texans game ended decisively in regulation.
All of this is not without controversy though. The struggles of referees in the NFL this year have been well documented and thoroughly scrutinized, and the Steelers arguably have the biggest issue of any team. Two of the games with the biggest implications for their own playoff chances swung on miscues by the officiating crew.
With about three minutes left in the first quarter of the Steelers’ Week 16 game against the Saints, the Saints, down 3, elected to go for a fourth-and- short from the Steelers’ 34-yard line. Brees was flushed from the pocket, and threw up what was effectively a punt towards Alvin Kamara in the endzone. The ball fell incomplete, but Joe Haden was called for pass interference. Replay appeared to show that no foul had occurred. The Saints were given a first-and-goal from the 1, and subsequently scored their first touchdown.
A fourth-down stop would have resulted in -3.28 EPA for the Saints, and set the Steelers up in good field position. Instead the play resulted in 3.73 EPA for the Saints, a total swing of 7.01 expected points. Put into context, Derrick Henry’s 99-yard touchdown run versus the Jaguars added 5.73 expected points. The sequence of events for the Steelers and Saints was among the largest swings in expected points this season.
From a win probability standpoint, the Saints chance of winning prior to the fourth-down attempt was 49 percent. Following Ingram’s score, their win probability jumped to 68 percent. With a fourth-down stop, the Steelers’ win probability would have jumped to almost 70 percent.
The penalty was a major turning point in a game that the Steelers would lose by a field goal. The foul occurred early, and the Steelers still had plenty more opportunities to win, but most people will still look back at the penalty and ensuing touchdown as a major factor in the loss.
The defeat left them needing help from the division rival Browns in week 17. The Steelers’ scenario was simple, a win and a Ravens loss and they were in .
With a little under two minutes remaining in the second quarter of that matchup, the Ravens were set up on the Browns 1 with an opportunity to extend their lead to three scores. On third down, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson attempted to clear the pile on a quarterback sneak, and extended the ball towards the goal line. The ball was punched loose, and cleanly recovered by Jabril Peppers of the Browns, who took off towards the end zone. The play however was immediately whistled dead as it was ruled the ball had crossed the plane.
The play would be reviewed and correctly overturned, but due to the premature whistle, Cleveland was given the ball at its own 7 , cancelling out what would have undoubtedly been a defensive touchdown.
The play as it stood was still worth -4.6 expected points for the Ravens. A 99- yard fumble-return touchdown though would have been an expected points swing of more than 12 points, effectively worth close to two touchdowns.
Looking at the win probability, the Browns chances were down to about 5 percent with the Ravens likely to go into the half up three scores. The play as it stood increased their chances by almost 10 percentage points, up to 14 percent. A touchdown would have increased their odds to nearly 46 percent going into the half, which would have been the biggest swing in win probability on a single play this season. The Browns would go on to make things interesting in the fourth quarter, but were not able to do enough to erase the two-score second half deficit, losing the game 26-24.
The Steelers are a team that is full of Super Bowl-level talent. Given that they won 7 of their first 10, they should’ve been battling for home field, not hoping for a wild card spot. But it still does not feel like much of a leap to think that both of the plays mentioned above played a large role in their failure to make the playoffs. Calls going the wrong way have always been a part of the game, but the Steelers and their fan base will likely feel slighted going into this offseason a little more than everyone else.