If James was expecting the worst nearly one year ago, on Dec. 17, 2017, then his fears were realized when officials in New York overturned his apparent touchdown. They said he didn't survive the ground, meaning the ball moved when he fell in the end zone. Duron Harmon intercepted Ben Roethlisberger two plays later to seal the New England Patriots' 27-24 win.
It was one of many controversial rulings on what constitutes a catch. In fact, it may have been the tipping point, the play that rid the NFL of the handful of "eye test" fails that caused outsized controversy each year. Plays where your eyes told you it was a catch, but the rule left officials with no choice but to rule incomplete.
“It wasn’t no famous play," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey told ESPN on Thursday. "It didn’t happen. The play that never happened. It was a practice play. That s--- don’t even matter. They changed the rule. So we can’t even talk about that anymore because that play is a no-catch with an old rule.”
It would have been a catch with the new rule.
As the Steelers prepare to host the Patriots on Sunday in a game with major playoff implications, both sides recall a play that will live in infamy in Pittsburgh and with less controversy in Foxborough.
James: “It wasn’t designed to come [that way]. We were trying to run a flat out to the front side. They had it covered up. Ben’s eyes got over to me. ... Had a little makeshift (play), like (Roethlisberger) always does ... Looking back, I wish I would have stayed on my feet.”
Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva: “I remember seeing Jesse catch the ball and making an effort to get over the goal line. I remember him stretching, feeling he was cognizant of where the goal line was and he reached out to make it. I remember watching the pass, but what’s crazy is I don’t even know. I’ve seen it so many times. I don’t know what’s real and what’s fiction.”
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster after the game: "I feel like he had ball control, he was in. In a game like that, when you go down and you finish the game like that, and then -- boom -- momentum, and the next thing you know [the referee] said he didn't have control of the ball. Nobody touched him."
Patriots receiver Phillip Dorsett: “When I saw it at first, obviously we thought we lost. When they showed it on the JumboTron, I immediately knew, ‘That’s not a catch!’ First thing that went into my head was Dez Bryant. If that wasn’t a catch, this wasn’t a catch. I was hoping it went our way, and it did.”
Villanueva: "I remember saying, ‘Oh, Dave [DeCastro], we won the game.’ Then I asked Jesse, and he said, ‘Oh, they are going to review it.’"
James: "Any time there’s a challenge, I never really know what’s going to happen. See one thing clear as day, and it ends up getting called the other way. It’s hard to make those calls.”
Pouncey: “I thought once the ball crossed the plane it was a touchdown, but I guess you had to control it at that point. The rules are the rules. You have to follow them. Does it stick in our mind? Hell yeah. But at the end of the day it was a rule. It’s not like they cheated. That’s how I look at it. It would have made last year’s playoffs a little bit easier, I’ll tell you that.”
The Steelers finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed behind the Patriots, and they eventually lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. The Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and ultimately lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Referee Tony Corrente, after the game: "We were inside of two minutes, and in order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground. In this case, he had control of the football but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground, and that's the end of it at that point."
Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey: “It was one of those things where we’re waiting to see. In those moments, so much is kind of preparing for what’s next, that you don’t really have time to think about what it’s going to be. When you watch as a spectator, you’re just sitting on the edge of your seat waiting, but as players we’re trying to discuss what will happen next -- either way the call goes.”
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: “I was thinking the same thing as everyone else: What’s going on? What happened? Then it’s like, ‘Yeah!’”
Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers: “Obviously I wasn’t feeling too good when they ruled it a touchdown and us potentially losing. Once they started reviewing it, it was one of those deals where it looked like -- how the rule was written -- it wasn’t a catch. So I was kind of confident of the call. Then it was about going back out there to play a few more snaps.”
Dorsett: “It was crazy. The way that game ended, it was loud. It was one of the craziest games we’ve been in.”
Twenty-eight seconds remained after the reversal, and the Steelers had a second-and-goal at the Patriots' 10. After a 3-yard pass to Heyward-Bey, Roethlisberger was picked off by Harmon. Roethlisberger hasn't fared well against Tom Brady, who is 8-2 against the Steelers QB.
James: "We still had a chance to win the game and we didn’t do it. We lost the game, ended up going to the playoffs and didn’t do the job there. It’s just the National Football League.”
Heyward-Bey: “We still had the opportunity to win the game and we didn’t. We turned the ball over. As you can see, that’s haunting us this year. You learn from that, and hopefully we can learn from our mistakes this year so we can go into that game and not make that happen.”
Patriots defensive playcaller (linebackers coach at the time) Brian Flores: "One play can change a game and one call can change a game. But again, when two good teams play, it normally comes down to the wire, it normally comes down to four or five plays in total. Thankfully, we made the plays in that game, and hopefully we make them this week."
Contributing: ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and ESPN National NFL writer Kevin Seifert