PITTSBURGH - As long as Michael Vick thinks fumbling the ball away on the opponent's goal line is just one of those things that happens sometimes, the Eagles are never going to be a championship-level team.
If you were to view Sunday's missed opportunity in a vacuum, that assessment might seem harsh. Vick wasn't waving the ball around on the first-quarter quarterback draw that took him from the Steelers' 3 to the 1, then took the ball into the end zone, without Vick attached. Safety Ryan Clark made a great play, jarring the fumble loose with his shoulder. Then linebacker Larry Foote recovered it in the end zone. In one play, a scoreless game went from first-and-goal, Eagles, to Steelers' ball at their 20.
The Steelers ultimately won, 16-14, on Shaun Suisham's last-second, 34-yard field goal. Had the Eagles scored even three points on the drive when Vick fumbled into the end zone, Pittsburgh would have needed to score a touchdown at the end of the game to win. Had the Eagles scored seven points then, the Steelers would have needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to force overtime.
But the Eagles didn't score any points on that drive, and they lost. Another stirring fourth-quarter touchdown march, this one featuring two fourth-and-1 conversions, was wasted, because the Birds couldn't take advantage of a Steelers team that came out of its bye week a tad sleepily. (And because the Eagles' defense couldn't get off the field at the end, allowing the Steelers to grind out the final 6 minutes and 33 seconds, while driving 64 yards on 14 plays.)
If you want to blame the defense for Sunday, have at it, but know that NFC teams are now 2-20-1 at Heinz Field since it opened, and fumbling three times, as Vick did, losing two, is about as likely to result in success here as trying to walk to the game across the Monongahela River. (Vick really fumbled four times, but was ruled down on video review the other time.) The Eagles already have won twice this season despite horrible turnovers; odds of hitting the lottery three times aren't great.
"I mean, it's football. Things happen," Vick said after the 3-2 Eagles blew a wonderful chance to go to 4-1, losing the turnover battle, 2-0, to a Steelers team that showed its age in some key spots. "I wish I could take back the fumble on the goal line, but I can't. Ultimately, we put ourselves in a position to win this game, but we didn't win. That's how it goes in the NFL. You wish you could have some things back, and there are plenty of things I wish I could have back through the course of the season, but you can't get them."
Vick has 11 of the Eagles' mind-numbing 14 turnovers, three of the four they've committed in the red zone. He has lost five fumbles in five games. You can be sure that next week, when the Eagles face Detroit, and every other week for the rest of the season, defenders will be going more for the strip than the tackle. The Steelers said all week that making Vick turn the ball over would be the key to the game, and it was.
"He didn't want to come in and fumble the ball," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That's not what he did. He was trying to make plays, and they hit the ball; they knocked it out."
The first whiff of the unwelcome but familiar stench of Vick ball-security problems arose with the Eagles driving midway through the first quarter. Vick launched himself through the air at the end of a 9-yard run and managed to fumble as he rolled over after hitting the turf, seemingly untouched. Only a random brush from Foote's foot as the linebacker hurdled Vick, the contact made just before the ball popped out and discerned via video review, saved the Eagles from a turnover.
So, four plays later, quarterback draw from the Steelers' 3, Vick dives ahead to the 1 and Clark separates him from the ball.
"I want to be humble, but we felt like we could drive on them," LeSean McCoy said. "At the beginning of the game, the calls we were making [worked], the runs, the passes. We were driving, driving. But that kind of changed the game a little bit."
Incredibly, after that it was still 0-0 near the end of the quarter, Eagles' ball at their 26, when Vick started dodging around the pocket, under pressure. Lawrence Timmons, who was dominant throughout, got him from behind, and guess what happened? The ball went bouncing away again, recovered by Foote.
Nobody wins on the road this way. Nobody wins anywhere this way. It's absurd.
"I will do a better job of protecting the football," Vick said. "The fumble on the goal line, the guy just put his helmet on a good spot, he put his helmet right on the ball," though replays showed Clark's shoulder pad, not his helmet, knocking the ball out. "I tried to protect it, but it came out, and I can't do anything about it."
Vick also said, "I never had a problem with fumbling before. It was one of those things," although he has fumbled 84 times in his 10-year career, losing 39. Sunday, yet another Vick fumble would have ended the Eagles' first touchdown drive, in the third quarter, but alert guard Danny Watkins pounced on the ball after Steve McLendon knocked it out.
"Mike understands what he has to do," said Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, who caught four passes for 58 yards. "He's a grown man, he's a professional . . . I think he'll get it fixed."
"Mike's trying to get in the end zone," right tackle Todd Herremans said, referring to the touchback fumble. "It's not like he was outstretched or anything. He had the ball tucked . . . I don't think any of us are sitting here faulting Mike."
The Steelers won despite losing their All-Pro safety, Troy Polamalu, to a reinjury of his right calf near the end of the first quarter. Linebacker Lamarr Woodley also left early, with a hamstring. The Eagles still managed only 14 points. They built some rhythm from going no-huddle a lot, and their ground game was effective here and there (McCoy had 53 yards on 16 carries), but Vick threw for just 175 yards and the Birds' longest completion went for 24 yards. Two hundred forty-six net yards isn't going to win all that often.
And yet, somehow, it almost did. When the Steelers faced third-and-12 from their 18 with 5:19 left, it was possible to glimpse how the Eagles might hang on to victory in a game they'd never led until Vick hit tight end Brent Celek from 2 yards out with 6:33 left, ending a drive that ate up an astounding 8:18.
But Ben Roethlisberger hit wideout Antonio Brown, working a seam in the Eagles' zone coverage down the middle, for 20 yards, and suddenly, the Steelers had all the momentum. Their march for the winning field goal was stopped by the clock more than by the Eagles; had the Steelers needed 20 or 30 more yards for Suisham, they seemed capable of getting it.
"It was very frustrating," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "We felt like we were sent out there to close the game out, and we didn't get it done as a defense. We let our team down. We had to make that play to get off the field. We were right there, we got 'em in third down, we just didn't make that play."
Reid, who used two timeouts early in the fourth quarter, and had only one for the Steelers' final clock-squeezing drive, seemed to have little patience for could-haves.
"Listen," Reid said. "They got us."