Steelers storm past Lions to keep postseason hopes alive
They are, for better or worse, the indecipherable Steelers.
From week to week, sometimes from minute to minute, they don't seem to know whether they're destined for a comeback from an 0-4 start or for a top-10 draft pick.
They can play with the best some days, lose to the worst the next. One instant they're giving up yardage in record lengths, the next they're giving up barely an inch.
All the things that are good about the Steelers — and all that are bad — showed up Sunday in a must-win 37-27 victory over the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field that couldn't have started or ended much better or gone much worse in the middle.
“We were up. We were down,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “There was no quit in anybody.”
The Steelers (4-6) probably could have quit on the game and a season that seems to dangle precariously from quarter to quarter, especially during a Lions offensive onslaught in the second quarter.
The Lions (6-4) came in with the NFC North lead, then seemed determined to give it away as soon as possible as Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes of 34 and 47 yards to Antonio Brown in a span of less than three minutes. Brown finished with seven catches for 147 yards.
Previously outscored 64-19 in the first quarter, the Steelers found themselves owning a rare, early 14-0 lead.
But in a flash, they fell apart defensively much like they did during that game-ending 31-7 outburst by New England two weeks ago.
With Matthew Stafford throwing for 267 yards in the second quarter alone, including touchdowns of 79 and 19 yards to Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, and David Akers adding two field goals, the Lions surged back to take a 27-20 halftime lead.
Every point they scored and nearly every meaningful yard the Lions gained all afternoon came during a stretch of 14 minutes, 15 seconds in the second quarter.
“But I don't think there was any panic at halftime,” safety Troy Polamalu said.
It all flipped during the second half, just like a week ago when the Steelers rebounded after allowing a record 610 yards to the Patriots to hold the Buffalo Bills without a touchdown until the closing seconds of a 23-10 win.
Johnson, who looked unstoppable while catching six passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, didn't make another catch.
“They weren't drawing up any great schematic things,” Polamalu said. “We just did our jobs better.”
Stafford, who had 327 yards passing by halftime, was an inexplicable 3 of 16 for 35 yards during a second half in which the Steelers outgained the Lions, 172-72.
“We weathered that storm,” said Roethlisberger, who wasn't referring to the rainy day or the seemingly never-ending controversy about his future with the team. “They are a great team. We just found a way to get it done.”
They got it done partly because of a bold but ultimately bad decision by Lions coach Jim Schwartz to pass on a seemingly easy 27-yard field goal try that would have made it 30-23.
Instead, rookie holder Sam Martin took off with the ball toward a gap in the Steelers' defense that was closed quickly by 325-pound nose tackle Steve McLendon.
“When you look at it initially, it was a big hole,” Martin said.
Much like the hole the Steelers were staring at when they lost their first four games. They've climbed back onto the fringe of the AFC wild-card race by winning four of six, but they still probably need to win five of their remaining six to have a chance.
At least five teams remain an obstacle in the race for what appears to be one wild-card spot.
“It just feels great right now,” Roethlisberger said. “I don't care what happened around the league because all we can control is what we control.”
Games against AFC North rivals Cleveland (4-6) on Sunday and Baltimore (4-6) on Thanksgiving in a five-day stretch might tell whether the Steelers will have anything to play for in December.
“Obviously there is no time to wear our hands out patting ourselves on the back,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The biggest turnaround wasn't necessarily how the Steelers shut down what looked to be an unstoppable Lions offense but how they produced touchdowns rather than field goals on their two most important drives of the game.
Taking the ball at their own 3 following the Lions' failed fake field goal, they used up more than eight minutes on a 97-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger's 1-yard, play-action touchdown throw to fullback Will Johnson.
Then, after backup safety Will Allen intercepted Stafford, Roethlisberger (29 of 45, 367 yards, four touchdowns) came back with a 20-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery, who made his fifth touchdown catch in three weeks.
It was typical of this atypical Steelers season. There is never any indication of what they will do next.
“We'll take it and move forward,” Tomlin said.
That's about all they can ask for.