ON BOARD THE DEATH STAR, Texas -- You could think of a dozen reasons in a dozen seconds why the Steelers might be slinking out of Texas with a listless record of 7-7 Sunday night, but chronic knuckleheadedness by the team's Most Valuable Player probably wouldn't have turned up in that dirty dozen.
A bad throw in overtime by the otherwise brilliant Ben Roethlisberger would have been omitted from this list as well, but MVP Antonio Brown had long since turned the Cowboys karma rightside up on a day when the home team was blowing healthy leads left and right.
"It's a bad situation," a red-eyed Brown whispered in the visitors locker room minutes after a 27-24 overtime loss that left the Steelers' margin of error for a postseason invitation at absolute zero. "Now we've got to bounce back. Every gentleman in a helmet has to know the points of emphasis."
There were three points of emphasis on which Brown sabotaged the Steelers performance after they'd taken a 24-17 lead on the very kind of play for which the little wideout has made himself famous, a daring catch and stretch across the goal line on a 7-yard toss from Roethlisberger with 12 and a half minutes to play.
Facing the red hot Tony Romo with a secondary mining the very depths of its depth, personnel-wise, the Steelers defense forced a punt on the next possession, a punt Brown caught at the 16, cut left, and headed toward midfield. But as he was nearing the 40, Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler reached toward Brown's ribs and poked the football loose.
A simple poke by that cowpoke. Didn't rake it. Didn't strip it. Poked it. How 'bout them 'Pokes?
John Phillips recovered for Dallas at the 44, and Mike Tomlin wasn't 15 seconds into his postgame summary before he fingered that as the turning point of a game and perhaps a season.
"We had a lead, we had a punt return, we were gonna be in real good field position, but we put the ball on the ground," said the head coach of a team that has lost four of its past five.
So naturally, Romo, who threw 13 interceptions in the season's first seven games but only three in the next seven, pushed the offense 44 yards in seven plays to a 24-24 tie. In a game that spanned more than 61 and a half minutes, the Cowboys trailed for less than six.
But Brown was far from finished. He lined up for the next Dallas punt at his 20, even though Cowboys punter Brian Moorman was standing at his 3.
Is that the standard, a 77-yard cushion?
Worse, Brown allowed the punt to bounce well in front of him and roll dead at the Steelers 20.
"Obviously, we'd like to field the ball in the air in those circumstances," said Tomlin.
Obviously, except, you know, to Brown.
And he still wasn't done.
Roethlisberger took back-to-back sacks on the Steelers' next-to-last possession of regulation, arranging a virtually unmanageable third-and-26. Ben flipped a short pass to Brown as the clock blinked to less than 70 seconds, and with no chance at a first down, Brown decided he might as well run out of bounds with 1:03 left.
All that did was allow Dallas to save its final timeout, which it used on the succeeding possession and very nearly won the game without any need for an abbreviated extra period.
With all that being said, it wasn't as if this was a game the Steelers deserved to win. Their battered secondary, featuring third stringers at corner and nickel back, got smoked by Romo's 30 completions and 341 passing yards, the first 300-yard game against Dick LeBeau's chicken-wire secondary since Tim Tebow cast the Steelers out of the playoffs Jan. 8. Romo completed 12 consecutive throws at one point, including all 10 of his passes in the third quarter, and snapped the Steelers 36-game regular-season streak of not allowing a 300-plus yards passing performance.
Keenan Lewis, the last best hope at corner with Ike Taylor sidelined, hurt his hip breaking up a potential touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
"That's not an ideal situation," veteran linebacker Larry Foote said of the Steelers' vanishing last line of defense, "but [general manager] Kevin Colbert and his staff bring guys in here who can play. Put the ball down, give us a blade of grass to defend and we'll worry about all that other stuff later.
"We were in the game. We had a chance. The young guys, you know, we play a lot of zero [coverage], putting them on an island, and they did a good job."
They'll have to do a lot better against Andy Dalton and A.J. Green Sunday on the North Shore. Otherwise, when those NFL playoffs start, they'll have to check their local listings.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org