PITTSBURGH -- It sounds like the most incredible tall tale ever: An NFL team loses because the referee misses the easiest call in football, the coin flip.
The Pittsburgh Steelers believe it following one of the most bizarre finishes in league history, one that someday may rank on the improbability scale alongside the Immaculate Reception.
Tails, they lost.
The disconsolate Steelers were scattered among all corners of the United States on Friday, celebrating a late Thanksgiving and cursing a 19-16 overtime defeat Thursday in Detroit -- and perhaps the first blown coin toss in NFL history.
"It was the weirdest game I've ever been involved with," running back Jerome Bettis said.
There is no such thing as appealing a defeat in the NFL, but the Steelers probably feel like asking for a hearing -- if only to question referee Phil Luckett's hearing.
The NFL said Friday it would have no comment on the coin flip controversy, but is conducting a review of the events surrounding the coin flip and expects to conclude that review next week.
As captains Carnell Lake and Bettis lined up for the overtime coin flip, Luckett asked which captain would make the call. Bettis volunteered.
As Luckett flipped the coin, CBS-TV replays disclosed a slight pause before Bettis said, hurriedly but distinctly, "Tails."
Luckett picked up the coin, turned to the Lions captains, acknowledged it was tails -- and, amazingly, asked if they wished to kick or receive. The Lions subsequently drove for Jason Hanson's game-winning 42-yard field goal, and the Steelers never saw the ball again.
Now, will they see the playoffs again in January?
"How can you blow the coin toss?" linebacker Earl Holmes said.
"It will be interesting to see the league's stance on this," Bettis said. "Will they say something is wrong or will they try to brush it under the carpet? Whenever you make that kind of call, it leaves a lot of question marks."
Just as there are many questions about the Steelers (7-5), who must hope that Jacksonville (8-3) collapses down the stretch if they are to win a fifth consecutive AFC Central title.
Cowher was so incensed with the call, he and several assistant coaches screamed loudly at the officials as they ran off the field, blaming them for the defeat.
Asked later to recap what happened at midfield, Bettis said, "I won -- and we lost."
They might have lost more than a game, too. If they don't win the division, the Steelers' chances of advancing to the playoffs as a wild card are diminishing because of their 5-4 conference record and 3-3 division record.
Still, the Steelers couldn't stop talking about the most debated coin flip call since the 1962 AFL championship game between the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) and Houston Oilers. Dallas' Abner Haynes nearly cost his team the championship by winning the coin toss, only to mysteriously choose to kick -- into a 40-mph wind.
"We'll kick to the clock," Haynes said.
Now, a different clock is ticking on the Steelers, who are 7-5 for only the second time in Cowher's seven-season tenure. The last time, 1993, they sneaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, but lost a wild-card game to the Texans, err, Chiefs.
They can blame the coin toss all they want, but the Steelers easily could have and probably should have won Thursday before overtime.
They crossed the 50 on their first six possessions, only to settle for two field goals. They blew a 13-3 lead. And they gave the Lions a gift score by inexplicably calling for a kickoff return reverse that was fumbled away by Richard Huntley, who leads the league with five fumbles.
Also, Bettis, who rushed for 1,665 yards last season, was ineffective again with 67 yards on 26 carries and now has only 418 yards on 144 carries in his last six games. And Lake, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive back, was in coverage for most of Herman Moore's eight catches for 148 yards.
"I hear guys talking about the coin toss," safety Lee Flowers said. "I don't know what's going on with that, but we need to know how to put a team away. It shouldn't have gotten to overtime in the first place."
Holmes said, "The question is: Where do the Steelers go from here? We've got a much harder fight now to make the playoffs."
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