PITTSBURGH — The momentum was swinging back and forth so wildly that when Steelers tight end Jesse James found himself with a chance to get into the end zone, he tried to do it as quickly as possible.
The Steelers, trailing, 27-24, had a first-and-goal from the 10 with 34 seconds left after a miraculous 69-yard catch and run by JuJu Smith-Schuster and a game that had gone from firmly in their control to out of their hands was once again winnable.
James flashed over the middle of the field, found a soft spot in the Patriots’ defense, and waited for Ben Roethlisberger to deliver a quick pass.
In one motion, James made the grab and twisted his body toward the end zone to push the ball across the goal line.
When he hit the ground and rolled over the goal line, James never thought twice about it being a touchdown.
“I was in the end zone,” James said, “Felt good about it.”
James popped up from the turf and let out a roar, figuring he had just come up with the game- winning touchdown.
Even when officials announced that they were reviewing the play, the celebration on the Steelers sideline didn’t stop.
But the longer the review lasted, the more they started to wonder.
“Honestly, I thought we won the game,” said Smith-Schuster. “Until you hear, ‘We’re reviewing the play.’ ”
Steelers receiver Eli Rogers thought officials may have been checking to see if James was short of the end zone.
“I was thinking they was reviewing if it was a touchdown or not,” he said. “I was thinking we would probably be on the 1-yard line.”
But James knew better.
“Nobody touched me, so it would’ve been a catch and a touchdown,” he said. “I knew what they were reviewing it for.”
It wasn’t a matter of the spot. It was a matter of whether James actually caught it at all. And in the NFL, the question of what is or isn’t a catch is a walk in muddy waters.
In this case, officials ruled that when James stretched for the goal line, he lost control of the football as he hit the ground. The play was overturned.
In a blink the Steelers went from thinking they had their ninth straight win to swallowing a heartbreaking loss.
It was another strange but common NFL case in which what meets the eye doesn’t line up with what’s in the rulebook, and a new term was introduced into the football lexicon: “Survive the ground.”
In explaining the decision, referee Tony Corrente said, “He just didn’t survive the ground. That’s the terminology we use in officiating. You have to survive the ground, which means that you have to maintain control of the football.”
According to NFL Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1: “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete.”
Corrente said, “In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground. In this case, he had control of the football, but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that’s the end of it at that point.”
James chalked up the explanation to being above his pay grade.
“I don’t work in that department,” he said. “I just play football. I thought it was a catch.”
But the decision left the Steelers with a sour taste in their mouths.
“That was crazy,” Rogers said. “I’ve never experienced that before. Never seen that before. A catch is a catch.”
Smith-Schuster was more blunt. “I thought it was [expletive],” he said. “I think he scored and that was it. Since they overturned it, that’s what it is. At the end of the day, we’ve got to come back. We’ll see them again. Just got to keep moving forward.”
Not even the Patriots were sure what to make of the play.
“I know it’s always hard to know when he hits the ground, is it a catch or not,” said Devin McCourty. “When you see it, it was kind of like his hands weren’t under it. Obviously, I’m kind of biased.”
Two plays later, Eric Rowe tipped a pass that landed in the hands of Duron Harmon in the end zone for an interception and secured the Patriots’ win.
“Once I saw the replay [of the James play], I did see the ball move,” Rowe said. “I wasn’t too sure. It could’ve went either way. I am obviously glad it went our way. We took it to the last play.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.