ARLINGTON, Texas -- Few players have provided more important plays for the Steelers the past few years than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and they were at it again Sunday.
Roethlisberger, their Pro Bowl quarterback, had thrown two touchdown passes, one of them to Brown, who fought through a defender to reach the end zone. He had more than 300 yards passing and he led his team from behind into a fourth-quarter lead against the Dallas Cowboys. Brown, their MVP a year ago and Pro Bowl returner, returned one punt 29 yards and led the Steelers with eight receptions.
But both players made critical errors in the fourth quarter and overtime, each blaming themselves for a 27-24 loss, their fourth in the past five games that dropped them to 7-7, yet somehow still quite alive for a playoff spot.
"Absolutely, 100 percent, this is on me," said Roethlisberger, whose interception on the second play of overtime set up Dan Bailey's 21-yard field goal to win it for Dallas. "I let the team, the fans, everybody down."
Brown was just as glum, just as willing to accept blame. With the Steelers ahead, 24-17, and 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, he returned a punt 22 yards. But Victor Butler stripped him of the ball, Dallas teammate John Phillips recovered at the Steelers 44 and the Cowboys (8-6) made good on it when DeMarco Murray ran 3 yards untouched up the middle on third down to knot the score at 24-24 with 6:55 left.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put the loss squarely on Brown.
"We allowed them to remain in the game, and we lost the game because of it," Tomlin said. "We had a lead, we had a punt return. It was going to be good field position. We put the ball on the ground."
Mike Wallace, who set up Jonathan Dwyer's 1-yard run that tied the score at 17-17 in the third quarter with a 60-yard reception of a Roethlisberger pass to the 2, fiercely defended his quarterback and fellow receiver.
"Ben has made so many plays for this team, he's the best player on this team, he's our leader," Wallace said. "I have no problem with it at all. Zero. Those guys leave everything on the field. I don't have a problem. Those guys fight every single week. We all fight. We're in this together. We could have made plays the whole game -- everybody."
There were plays made on both sides in as good a game as the Steelers have been in all season. Both teams hobbled into it with injured players out, and both teams lost more as the game went along.
But Roethlisberger and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo put on a passing clinic after a sluggish first quarter in which the Cowboys led, 3-0.
Romo at one point completed 12 passes in a row and finished 30 of 42 for 341 yards and two touchdowns, one of 17 yards to Jason Witten that put Dallas on top, 10-0, in the first quarter, and 24 yards to Dez Bryant that put them ahead, 17-10, in the third quarter.
Roethlisberger was 24 of 40 for 339 yards, two touchdowns and that one killer interception.
Cornerback Brandon Carr signed a $50 million contract as a free agent to join the Cowboys this year. Previously, he played for Kansas City, where current Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley was head coach.
He said he used knowledge of Haley's tendencies to good use in overtime.
The Steelers won the coin toss and took the ball to start overtime. He completed a 7-yard pass to Heath Miller to the 27 on first down. On second down, he tried to throw a 10-yard out pass along the right sideline to Wallace. Roethlisberger's pass was a little behind Wallace, Carr made a nice play to jump on it and returned it 36 yards to the 1.
"It was the first time that guy backed off Mike," Roethlisberger said. "I called the out route for him and I just didn't put enough on it on the outside far enough and he made a good play."
Said Carr, "Knowing coach Haley, I kind of figured that play would be coming at some point in the game. It was zone coverage, so I was able to read the quarterback and the ball. ... It helped a lot playing for him, because it let me know how he thinks."
Before that interception, before Brown's fumble, it appeared Roethlisberger would pull out another late winner. He was masterful for much of the game, yet Romo matched his craft.
Roethlisberger completed one of his most athletic pass plays of the season, finding tight end Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown to tie the score at 10-10 at halftime. Roethlisberger escaped a rush, ran around, pump-faked three times and then hit Miller on the right at the 15. Miller covered the final 15 for his career-high eighth touchdown to tie the score.
"They went to a prevent defense so the play that was called just wasn't a good play at all," Roethlisberger said. "So we just started making a play [on the run] ... at the last minute I saw him on the sideline."
Dallas wasn't without its own lost chances. The Cowboys might have put the game away early had it not been for another big play from James Harrison. Up, 3-0, Dallas drove to a first down at the Steelers 7 in the first quarter. On second down, Murray had nowhere to run up the middle because of linebacker Larry Foote, and Harrison swooped in and knocked the ball out. Brett Keisel recovered at the 8 to stave off a score.
But it would be the only turnover for the Cowboys, compared to the Steelers' big two. Two turnovers, late in a game that slipped away from them. It has become a trend over the past five weeks.
"Not enough critical plays," Tomlin said about his team, "particularly in those moments to secure victory. They made the splash play necessary to secure victory. We didn't."
Yet they play Cincinnati and Cleveland in their final two games, at home, and if they win both the Steelers will find themselves in the playoffs.
First Published December 17, 2012 5:00 AM