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Who Called for the Fake Spike, and Who Knew It Was Coming?

Just before the stunning final throw in Pittsburgh against New England, there was confusion on both sides of the ball. What happened?

PITTSBURGH — To spike, or not to spike? The Steelers were torn on Sunday as time ticked away in the best game of the 2017 regular season. After Darrius Heyward-Bey was tackled in bounds and the game clock dipped below 20 seconds, Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh coaching staff had a decision to make on a third-and-goal from the seven-yard line with no time outs left. Was anyone on the same page?

At the 20-second mark, Roethlisberger makes the “spike it” motion as the offense hustles to the line. At the 16-second mark, Roethlisberger looks to the left side of the formation where Heyward-Bey and JuJu Smith-Schuster are lined up. And at the 13-second mark, he turns to the right side of the field, where receiver Eli Rogers is lined up. Roethlisberger then taps his helmet with both hands, signaling a route to Rogers; he quickly looks at the left side again and gives the same signal. He goes under center and takes the snap with nine seconds left, and immediately fakes a spike.

Rogers takes off, while Smith-Schuster, Heyward-Bey and Le’Veon Bell (lined up in the backfield) barely move, clearly anticipating the ball will be spiked (tight end Jesse James stays in to block, halfheartedly). The offensive and defensive lines stand straight up, expecting the play to end immediately. Patriots back-seven defenders on the offense’s left side of the field barely move, while the four defenders on the right side—Rogers’s side—keep playing.

We all know what happens next: Roethlisberger tries to fit a throw into Rogers in the middle of the field. Cornerback Eric Rowe deflects the pass and it lands in the hands of a surprised Duron Harmon, the safety loitering until the play’s final moment.

The question is: why? After the game, all parties involved tried to explain:

Roethlisberger: “It wasn’t a fake spike. I was yelling ‘clock it’ because I felt that was the thing to do—clock it and get yourself one more play. And it came from the sideline, ‘Don’t clock it, don’t clock it.’ Well, at that time, everyone already thinks it’s clocked so you don’t have time to try and get everybody lined up so I tried to—Eli saw, tried to run a quick slant there and at that time you just gotta try and make a play so . . . I didn’t make a good enough throw.”

When asked again, he said: “I’m not going to comment on that. I just said it once. I’m not going to talk about it again.”

Mike Tomlin: “We play and play to win. That’s what we do.”

Safety Devin McCourty, who chased Rogers along with Rowe: “It’s something we talk about when they get back to the ball, getting the call out and just playing. There are only a couple of routes they can do. It’s either got to be an incomplete pass or a touchdown. You just really want to get on your guy because if they hold it too long, like tonight, it’s a tough play to make because you can’t take a sack.”

Deatrich Wise, Jr., who lined up over the center and pushed the pocket only briefly after the snap: “We thought it was going to be a spike so we jammed the line and then I realized and saw him pump to throw the ball. I turned around and watched everything happen.”

Roethlisberger seemed to realize after initially heaping the blame on the coaching staff that he’d have to downshift and put the loss on his throw. It’s the definition of rock and a hard place. Both quarterback and coach will be thankful when this is no longer part of the discussion anymore.

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NOW ON THE MMQB: A Sports Illustrated exclusive from L. Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein on Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who created a destructive workplace culture in Carolina. In light of the details disclosed for the first time in this piece, Richardson announced on Sunday evening that he would sell the team.

LATER TODAY ON THE MMQB: The Monday Morning Quarterback with Peter King . . . Adventures in Steeler Tailgate Land by Kalyn Kahler . . . complete coverage of a wild week ahead in the NFL.

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1. Lost in the shuffle Sunday: Marvin Lewis will not be returning as head coach of the Bengals next season. For the first time in 15 years, the team will perform a coaching search.

2. Good for the Charlotte Observer, which went all in on the Richardson allegations. Their section is worth reading Monday, including a strong column by Scott Fowler.

3. In Aaron Rodgers’s return, Packers beat savant Tom Silverstein estimates that set a new record for comments during a liveblog (more than 8,000).

4. The Giants lost again. Eli Manning had a great game and the team is one week closer to finishing the season without any sort of evaluation on rookie quarterback Davis Webb. A constructive month in East Rutherford.

5. Where were you on this day in 2007, the last time the Jacksonville Jaguars clinched a playoff berth?

6. Sean McDermott loves playing in Buffalo, his advantageous little snow globe.

7. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater makes his NFL debut for 2017, capping a stunning comeback from his gruesome knee injury.

8. Jadeveon Clowney sees Blake Bortles the way you and I see old banana peels and old leftovers.

9. Nick Foles threw four touchdowns on Sunday. Is he their new baby?

10. An interesting read by Pro Football Focus on a new trend for fantasy football obsessives.

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All hell might be breaking loose in Carolina, but Cam Newton wants us all to believe in the calming power of the fez.

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