The deja vu scene burst forward like a ghost of Super Bowls past as the Steelers dashed down field in a race against the clock to complete a 92-yard drive for victory.
Ben Roethlisberger kept completing passes, moving the ball. Santonio Holmes was there. With 9 seconds left Roethlisberger managed two passes from the 10 into the end zone -- and Holmes' team won again.
Both passes fell incomplete as Holmes' new team, the New York Jets, took advantage of some undisciplined play and the lack of big plays by the Steelers for a 22-17 victory Sunday night at Heinz Field.
"They made the significant plays, particularly down the stretch, and we didn't," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Nevertheless, the Steelers clinched at least a wild-card playoff spot (based on a complicated strength of victory tiebreaker). And although they fell to 10-4 and tumbled back into a first-place tie in the AFC North with Baltimore, they will win the division and the No. 2 seed in the AFC with victories in their final two games -- at home Thursday night against Carolina and Jan. 2 at Cleveland.
The Jets kept on pace for a wild-card playoff berth with a 10-4 record. Sunday, they scored four different ways after not scoring a touchdown in their previous two games.
A 97-yard kickoff return to open the game by Brad Smith, a 7-yard touchdown run by quarterback Mark Sanchez, a safety for two points with 2:38 left when Jason Taylor tackled running back Mewelde Moore in the end zone and field goals of 25 and 34 yards by Nick Folk combined to do in the Steelers.
But Roethlisberger, author of 23 winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, nearly made it 24 after starting at his 8 with 2:08 to go.
"We had a long way to go," said Roethlisberger, who completed just 23 of 44 passes for 264 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown pass to Matt Spaeth in the first quarter. "We started moving. Guys made some big plays and we got down there. We just fell a little short."
He made his own big play when he scrambled for 22 yards to the 30, and later completed a 29-yard pass on third-and-24 to rookie Emmanuel Sanders.
After completing another third-down pass of 16 yards to rookie Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger had his offense perched on the 10 with 9 seconds left. As he had for much of the game, he had good protection and took his time as he looked for an open receiver in the end zone. He saw Sanders flash open in the back near the goalposts. Spaeth, however, also was there and he lunged for the ball and tipped it away.
"When you've got scrambling rules, guys are just moving around," Sanders explained. "So me and Spaeth ended up in the wrong -- I mean, in the right spot at the same time. It didn't work out."
On the final play, Roethlisberger threw incomplete to Spaeth along the left sideline of the end zone.
"You have seen him do it over and over," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "It's one where if you're a defensive coordinator, you're just looking for the nearest building or something. He throws, it's third and a zillion, and he hits that pass. He's that kind of quarterback, and that's what scares you down there."
Some scary stuff happened to the Steelers, too. Like another kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the first this season after an embarrassing four in 2009.
"Very frustrating," Hines Ward said. "A big game like this, you come out and give them ... the guy didn't move at all, he ran in a straight line for a touchdown.
"Offense, defense, special teams, coaches -- we all helped contribute to this loss."
Coaches? Ward explained no further. But Rashard Mendenhall was running for good chunks against the Jets defense -- 17 times for 100 yards -- yet he was not in the game when the Steelers were at their 3 late and trailing by three points.
On first down, in the shotgun formation, Roethlisberger handed off to Moore deep, tackle Jonathan Scott missed his block and Taylor made the Steelers pay with a tackle in the end zone for a safety.
Now they trailed by five points and needed a touchdown.
"If we don't give up the safety, we at least have a chance to tie the ballgame," Ward said.
The Jets made most of the big plays and won even though the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher, 100-yard receiver (Mike Wallace 7 for 102) and no turnovers. The Troy Polamalu-less Steelers defense also managed just one sack and no turnovers.
That defense let a 17-10 third-quarter lead slip through its hands.
The Steelers snapped a 10-10 halftime tie on the first series of the third quarter when Mendenhall ran 1-yard for a touchdown, his 10th rushing this season. But the Jets came back on their first series to tie it, 17-17.
With fourth-and-1 at the Steelers 7, Sanchez faked a handoff in a power formation and ran around left end with no defender near him for the touchdown.
"The boot where they scored, that was me," said linebacker James Harrison, who moved inside on the fake. "I'm supposed to watch the boot. I was trying to do more."
The drive was highlighted by Braylon Edwards' 15-yard catch and then a high hit by safety Ryan Clark to Edwards, yielding another 15 yards on the roughing penalty. It gave the Jets a first down at the 16.
"I hurt my team with that play," said Clark, who maintained he did not hit Edwards in the head as the officials ruled. "Inexcusable."
Another 15-yard personal foul stymied a drive for the Steelers late in the third quarter. Roethlisberger completed a 17-yard pass to Wallace for a first down at the 46. However, tackle Flozell Adams was flagged for hitting Darrelle Revis in the head after the play. The Steelers went back to their 32 and the drive died.
The Jets took the final lead on Folk's 34-yard field goal with 10:07 left. The Steelers seemingly had the Jets stopped when, on third down at the New York 46, Polamalu replacement Ryan Mundy missed a clear shot on a possible sack of Sanchez, who then completed a 16-yard pass to Edwards to keep the scoring drive going. Sanchez was 19 of 29 for 170 yards.
"It seemed like we just couldn't get that big play when we needed it," linebacker James Farrior said.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com First Published December 20, 2010 5:00 AM