Save the Last Dance for Me

PITTSBURGH - There are good ties and there are bad ties. For the Steelers, Sunday's 34-34 tie with Atlanta would definitely be considered a bad one.<p> When you own a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at home, you're supposed to win. When you have 645 yards of total offense and run 85 plays, you're supposed to win. And when you win the overtime coin toss and gain 167 yards in the extra period, you're supposed to win.<p>

Somehow, the Steelers didn't. Instead of playing to win, they played not to lose.

There's an old saying that says you should dance with the person who brought you to the ball. The Steelers chose not to do it in the fourth quarter, eschewing an aggressive passing game that had been so good for them the first three quarters for a conservative running attack.

In the first three quarters of the game, quarterback Tommy Maddox completed 19-of-27 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns. But, after throwing his fourth TD pass of the game with 2:25 left in the third quarter, Maddox threw just two more passes until there were 42 seconds left in the game and the score was tied.

"It was the situation of the game," said Cowher of the Steelers' decision to quit attacking the Falcons. "If we don't fumble the punt, I guess these questions aren't asked. I'm not going to second-guess. You can pass judgment. I'm not going to second-guess the decision making and the play calling."

Certainly, Antwaan Randle El's fumble of a punt with 10:18 remaining and the Steelers leading 34-17 was a big play. But, had the Steelers played aggressively the next two times, they had the ball, they could have run out the clock. Instead, in six plays, they ran the ball four times - gaining a total of two yards - and were forced to punt twice, allowing the Falcons, with a ton of momentum, to get the ball back both times.

One, or even two, first downs in either of those situations, and the Steelers win the game.

And considering how badly receivers Hines Ward (11 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown) and Plaxico Burress (9 receptions for a team-record 253 yards and two scores) were schooling the Atlanta defensive backs, it's not beyond reason to believe the Steelers could have safely run the clock out with a couple of first downs throwing the ball.

That being said, it's understandable that Cowher would believe his defense could hold a 17-point fourth quarter lead at home.

But Cowher's overtime decision-making left a lot to be desired. After winning the coin toss, the Steelers took the ball from their own 20 to the Atlanta 29. On fourth-and-three from the 29, Cowher opted to send placekicker Todd Peterson onto the field to attempt a 48-yard field goal.

Considering Peterson had already missed a 40-yard field goal at the end of the half and also had an extra point attempt blocked, to believe he had any chance to hit a 48-yard attempt kicking into the open end of Heinz Field would be considered delusional at best.

The Falcons blocked the kick and recovered it at their own 47. Luckily for Cowher, the Falcons were unable to do anything with the excellent field position.

"I wanted to give our team a chance to win the game," Cowher said. "If we had not made it on fourth down, then I think I would have deprived our team of a chance to win the game."

No, he did that later.

With 47 seconds left in the overtime period and the Falcons facing a fourth-and-three play at the Pittsburgh 37, Cowher decided to allow Atlanta to run the clock down to eight seconds before the Falcons called a timeout and attempted a 57-yard field goal.

"I didn't want them to think about going for it," Cowher said. "I thought about it when there was time, but the way (Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick) was running, I just didn't know."

There was one thing Cowher knew. He knew he would rather settle for a tie than a loss.

"I had to keep telling (the players) that it is not a loss," Cowher said. "It doesn't feel as good as a win, but it doesn't feel as bad as a loss."

Considering how it occurred, it should feel a lot more like the latter than it does the former.

--Dale Lolley

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