Steelers keep playoff hopes alive with big victory over Packers
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Their chances of reaching the playoffs remain microscopic, their flaws remain evident and great. Even when they do things right, somehow they seem to go wrong.
Maybe that’s what the Steelers needed to reveal two characteristics they’ve displayed far too infrequently in what may end up being just another .500 season: Character and perseverance.
They withstood as bad a break as any of their teams has endured in recent seasons — a blocked Green Bay field goal that, inexplicably, resulted in a Packers touchdown — and their miniscule playoff hopes remain intact for yet another week following a down-to-the last-play 38-31 win Sunday at snowy and frigid Lambeau Field.
To get into the playoffs, the Steelers (7-8) must beat the Browns (4-11) on Sunday and the Jets (7-8) must beat the Dolphins (8-7), the Bengals (10-5) must beat the Ravens (8-7) and the Chiefs (11-4) must beat the Chargers (8-7).
Stranger things have happened but not many; in 1989, the Steelers had to win in Tampa Bay, and then hope four other AFC teams lost. They all did.
Just on Sunday, the Steelers had to win and the Jets, Bills and Patriots all had to win, and they all came through.
“Right now, we still have a shot for the playoffs, if things go in our favor next week,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We’re optimistic about that.”
Optimistic might not be the right word given the myriad of things that must happen, but then who thought the Steelers would still be in this position going into Week 17 after they started 0-4?
“It’s been a crazy season for sure,” punter Mat McBriar said.
How crazy? This game turned on, of all things, a 30-yard completion by McBriar — who never even picked up a football until he was an adult — to tight end David Paulson.
And what could have been a season-breaking play didn’t fracture the Steelers but, rather, angered them, united them and rallied them against a desperate-to-win team that had won 13 consecutive regular season home games in December and January.
With the Steelers up 17-14 following a Ben Roethlisberger 13-yard touchdown run set up by the fake punt, the Packers lined up for what looked to be a routine 22-yard Mason Crosby field goal try. Only two yards longer than any extra point, it looked to be a can’t-miss.
But Steve McLendon leaped to deflect the kick and, after a scramble, Ryan Clark’s knee touched down as he tried to lateral the ball, meaning it should have been the Steelers’ ball at that spot. The ball was then knocked out of bounds by Ziggy Hood.
Steelers ball, right?
“We ruled that the ball continued to be a loose ball throughout the play,” referee Carl Cheffers said. “Batting is an intentional act. You cannot do that in direction of your own goal line. So if you bat the ball forward, it is an illegal act. … The only place we can enforce the foul from is the previous spot.”
Green Bay was given the ball and a first down at the 2. Eddie Lacy, passed over by the Steelers in the draft, scored from the 2 to put the Packers up 21-17.
The wind-chill factor was around zero as a light snow fell the whole game, but the thermometer hit the boiling point on the Steelers’ sideline.
Asked what his mood was, coach Mike Tomlin said, “Angry,” then repeated it.
In fact, he was so angry that he argued again even after the Steelers quickly drove five plays for Ben Roethlisberger’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Matt Spaeth, his first catch of the year.
“That was maybe the craziest thing I’ve seen in 12 years in the league,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “The guys make a big stand, block a field goal, get it, and you’re thinking we’re going to score and it will be a different ballgame. But they end up giving them the ball back and they end up … it’s a crazy, crazy play.”
Earlier this season, the Steelers might have collapsed after such a touchdown went against them.
Instead, they bounced back to score 14 points in 18 seconds. On Green Bay’s next play following the Spaeth scoring catch, tight end Andrew Quarless collided with Matt Flynn as he threw a pass that sailed directly into Cortez Allen’s hands for a 40-yard interception return touchdown. Suddenly, it was 31-21 Steelers.
“What happened with the call, sometimes you’ve got to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt and respond,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “We wanted to respond with a touchdown and that was a great opportunity to really show resilience and perseverance and go back and score.”
But the Packers (7-7-1), who rallied from 24 points down in the second half to beat Dallas the week before, came back to tie it on Crosby’s 22-yard field goal and former Steelers running back John Kuhn’s 1-yard run following Flynn’s 21-yard completion to Jordy Nelson.
With the score tied 31-31 at the two-minute warning, overtime looked likely. But Troy Polamalu, a playmaker once again, flew across the field to force a Flynn fumble that defensive end Brett Keisel recovered with 1:51 remaining.
Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 124 yards in his first career 100-yard game and the first by a Steelers running back in 23 games, scored five plays later from the 1 to put the Steelers back in the lead.
The Steelers probably could have run more clock to set up a game-winning field goal try by Shaun Suisham but, Tomlin said, “I’m not into that. We had an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone. With weather conditions like that, anything can happen. Given an opportunity to score, we are going to score.”
The Packers appeared to be in position to tie it following Micah Hyde’s 70-yard kickoff return. But a false started penalty on a second-and-1 play from the Steelers’ 1 resulted in an invaluable 10-second runoff and, suddenly down to one play instead of at least two, Flynn threw incomplete into the end zone.
“Still, we should have been able to get two plays off,” Flynn said.
Instead, the Steelers lived to see another Sunday. One more unlikely Sunday.
“It’s crazy,” Roethlisberger said.
It was the theme of the day.