Could Be 2007 Before Steelers Get Over Falcons Loss - By Ricky Dimon

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

If the Steelers miss the playoffs -- and right now they are on the outside looking in -- they will look back to one game and one game only.

Cedrick WilsonLast Sunday's 41-38 thriller in the Georgia Dome.

It was a game that the Steelers could have and should have won. Granted the outcome was not entirely their fault, but it would be an understatement to say that this was one that got away.

After the Falcons took a quick 7-0 lead on a Vick-to-Crumpler 22-yard touchdown that was the only play of the drive following a Santonio Holmes punt-return fumble, the Steelers ran off 17 straight points. Atlanta had blown a 14-3 lead just seven days earlier in their own house in a 27-14 loss to the Giants, so it appeared a similar stew was brewing in the Dome midway through the second quarter.

Then the Steelers decided that Christmas would come early for the Falcons. Inexplicably it was the Steelers offense -- not the defense -- that began handing Atlanta bunches and bunches of points in gift-wrapped packages. When the Falcons punted with 7:47 left in the first half, their offense had produced three consecutive three-and-outs since the initial touchdown. At that point it looked like the Steelers 17 points would be more than enough to hold up throughout the entire game. Who knew that a whopping 38 wouldn't even be able to get the job done? Who knew that a bevy of Steelers' mistakes would almost force a stagnant Falcons offense to score?

Somehow, someway, that is exactly what happened. Roethlisberger fumbled the first play from scrimmage after the aforementioned punt and just 25 yards later, Alge Crumpler had his second touchdown catch of the game. The Falcons then caught Pittsburgh's special teams unit napping and Jerious Norwood recovered Michael Koenen's onside kick right around midfield. Seven plays and two defensive penalties later Michael Vick set his career-high for passing touchdowns in a game with three. Keep in mind he did this all in the first half.

The Steelers regained the momentum with an 80-yard, one-minute drive that culminated in a touchdown strike from Roethlisberger to Nate Washington. But Pittsburgh decline to cushion their lead heading into the break. Michael Vick's pass on the Falcons ensuing drive went straight through the hands of running back Warrick Dunn and was picked off by James Farrior. The Steelers had 47 seconds and all three timeouts at their disposal and probably only had to go no more than 40 yards to give Jeff Reed a reasonable shot at making a field goal.

Cowher, however, seemed to be content with a three-point lead and called for two quarterback kneels. Sure hindsight is 20-20, but wouldn't three more points have looked mighty nice at the end of regulation?

The disturbing trend of allowing short touchdown drives continued in the second half when Atlanta marched just 26 yards following a Willie Parker fumble. Consider, if you dare, the length of the Falcons' first four voyages to the endzone: 22 yards, 25 yards, 51 yards, and 26 yards. For those of you who want some math done, that means the Steelers allowed Michael Vick and company to score four times while covering less than one and a quarter football fields. You don't need me to tell you that such a revelation is nothing short of disgusting.

Let's not, however, overlook the fact that the Steelers offense did some really good things on Sunday that got overshadowed by what ultimately turned out to be a crushing loss. Roethlisberger completed 16 of 22 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game with a concussion. (See, we can't even avoid discussing the abundant misfortune of this game even while talking about the things that went so well). Charlie Batch came in and picked up right where Big Ben left off. He completed 8 of his 13 attempts for 195 and two scores.

At the same time, however, let's not get too excited about bloated statistics when they don't lead to the ultimate goal of wins, wins, and more wins. When you get 433 yards (more than the Atlanta's total yards) and five touchdowns out of your quarterback position, you simply have to win the game. When you're trying to reach .500 for the first time during a season in that same situation, anything other than winning is simply not an option.

But Pittsburgh didn't win. They didn't even tie, which was the result of these two franchises last meeting in 2002.

Of course, blaming the debacle completely on the Steelers would be unfair. In the latter stages of the game, Pittsburgh was quite unlucky. You could also argue that Roetlisberger's concussion was some bad luck as well, and it very well could be in the long run, but Batch's performance probably made it inconsequential in terms of Sunday's outcome.

What did play a part in the result was the illegal motion call on Nate Washington that nullified a 25-yard pass to Hines Ward with 17 seconds left in regulation. Had it not been for the call, Jeff Reed would have been able to attempt a very makeable 50-yard game-winning field goal.

The next dagger driven into the heart of Steeler nation came with the all-important overtime coin toss. I will never understand why the NFL allows a coin toss to play such a decisive role in the outcome of games, but that discussion is for a different place and time.

The bottom line is the Steelers called heads and the referee flipped a tails. Game over. Hello, two games under .500. Yeah the Steelers had the Falcons facing a third down in OT and Troy Polamalu had Vick wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, but I think it's more than fair to say that the coin toss mattered even more than Vick's final-drive heroics. After all, if it had been a tails Vick never would have gotten a chance.

Whether the Steelers lost because of bad luck or sloppy play -- or even because of Michael Vick suddenly learning how to pass -- is a fair debate. What's not up for debate is that this was a game that simply got away.

Ten weeks from now when the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled, if the Steelers are not participating in the playoffs, this is the game they'll look back on. This is the game that will keep them awake during sleepless off-season nights.