Officials called Joe Haden for pass interference on two Saints’ fourth-down plays. Both led to Saints’ touchdowns.
Michael Thomas caught a 2-yard touchdown pass against Haden with 1:25 remaining for the winning points. That came five plays — plus a holding penalty on the Saints — after officials cited Haden for a 4-yard pass interference on Thomas with 1:56 remaining and New Orleans facing a fourth-and-two at the Pittsburgh 26.
The Saints’ 31-28 victory clinched the top seed in the NFC. The Steelers (8-6-1) now need help to win the AFC North, falling behind the Ravens (9-6) in the standings heading into the final week.
Pittsburgh, which has lost four of five, has only itself to blame.
A furious fourth quarter saw the Steelers lose two fumbles, fail on a fake punt attempt and block a Saints field goal attempt.
The Steelers had 1:25 after Thomas’ go-ahead touchdown and were driving, getting into field goal range before JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled. Smith-Schuster caught an 8-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to the New Orleans 34, but Sheldon Rankins forced and recovered the fumble to end the Steelers’ last-gasp hope for Sunday and perhaps for the season.
Stevan Ridley fumbled early in the fourth quarter with the Steelers at the New Orleans 35, with Kurt Coleman forcing it and Alex Okafor recovering.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, though, will have to answer questions about a fake punt his team attempted, holding a 28-24 lead with 4:11 remaining. Facing fourth-and-5 at their own 42, the Steelers had Roosevelt Nix take the direct snap. He was stopped by Craig Robertson a yard short of the line to gain.
The Saints’ two fourth-down plays came on penalties by Haden, with the one in the first half a gift from officials. On fourth-and-one, Brees threw the ball into the end zone toward Alvin Kamara. Haden was penalized 33 yards to the 1-yard line, where Melvin Ingram cashed in with a touchdown on the next play.
It appeared Haden did nothing more than have a hand on Kamara’s back, and CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore tweeted that officials should not have penalized Haden.
Brees completed 27 of 39 passes for 326 yards and a touchdown. Thomas caught 11 passes for 109 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Roethlisberger went 33-of-50 for 380 yards and three touchdowns, with Antonio Brown catching 14 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Smith-Schuster caught 11 passes for 115 yards.