On a frigid, snowy afternoon at Lambeau Field that featured multiple pivot points and taut drama, the Pittsburgh Steelers somehow escaped with their postseason dreams still feasible.
Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell‘s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:25 remaining completed his finest NFL performance and held up as the winning score in the Steelers’ rollicking 38-31 win over the Packers on a blustery Sunday in Wisconsin. Bell rushed for 124 yards to help Pittsburgh (7-8) stay alive for the playoffs, but just barely.
Following Bell’s touchdown, which the Packers (7-7-1) allowed him to score because they had no timeouts left, Micah Hyde returned the kickoff to the Pittsburgh side of the field. Backup quarterback Matt Flynn, starting his seventh straight game in the place of injured star Aaron Rodgers, drove Green Bay within one yard of the tying score with 20 seconds to go, but a false start penalty cost the Packers five yards and a 10-second runoff.
With the clock rapidly ticking away, Flynn threw incomplete to end the game, deflating the sellout crowd at one of America’s great sports venues. Green Bay’s late miscues took the pressure off Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, who could’ve ordered the Steelers to kill the clock on their final drive and set up for a last-second game-winning field goal.
The Steelers got the ball for the deciding score when safety Troy Polamalu forced Flynn to fumble on a third-down scramble. Brett Keisel recovered at the Green Bay 17, but the Packers forced a field-goal attempt when Ben Roethlisberger overthrew an open Antonio Brown in the left side of the end zone. Brown finished with six receptions for 105 of Roethlisberger’s 167 yards through the air.
However, Green Bay went offside on Shaun Suisham‘s 27-yard kick, giving Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs – and seemingly the game. Bell, who carried 26 times, pushed up the middle to the 1, after which the Packers decided to let the visitors have the touchdown and save some time.
The schizophrenic endgame capped an up-and-down second half that saw both teams seize apparent control of the outcome. The Steelers entered halftime trailing 14-10, but Roethlisberger’s first rushing touchdown since 2010 gave them their first lead on the first drive of the third quarter.
Bell fumbled the ball away inside his own 5 on the Steelers’ next drive, and then things got wild. Pittsburgh defensive lineman Steve McLendon blocked a 23-yard field goal by Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, but the Packers were awarded an erroneous first down when it was determined the Steelers never gained possession before they illegally batted the ball forward. Eddie Lacy, who had 84 rushing yards, sprinted for his second touchdown of the game on the next play to confusingly put the Packers back on top.
Perhaps it was karma, but the Steelers shoved back with 14 straight points before the fourth quarter. A punt-fake pass from Mat McBriar to David Paulson accounted for more than 40 yards, leading to Roethlisberger hitting tight end Matt Spaeth with a go-ahead 11-yard scoring pass. On Green Bay’s next drive, cornerback Cortez Allen picked off Flynn for another touchdown to make it 31-21 for Pittsburgh.
A.J. Hawk‘s one-handed interception of Roethlisberger turned the game back in favor of the home team, though. Former Steelers fullback John Kuhn put the finishing touches on a 10-point Green Bay rally with a short TD plunge midway through the fourth.
Roethlisberger threw a short scoring pass to Emmanuel Sanders in the first quarter to answer Jarrett Boykin‘s touchdown reception moments earlier. Big Ben went 16 for 28 in the adverse weather conditions of the “Frozen Tundra.” Flynn completed 21 of 39 for 232 yards.
The Steelers host Cleveland next week with an outside chance of sneaking into the AFC playoffs as the second wild-card team. Much like what happened earlier Sunday, Baltimore needs to lose for that to happen, while the Jets have to win at Miami and San Diego must fall to Kansas City.
The planets will have to align for the second straight weekend, but what once seemed impossible is now just improbable. It’s not much, but it’s an improvement.
Notes: Brown, who has at least five receptions in every game this season, surpassed Yancey Thigpen for the Steelers’ single-season record for receiving yards. Brown has 1,412 this year; Thigpen ended up with 1,398 in 1997…Bell’s 100-yard rushing performance was Pittsburgh’s first in 23 games. Isaac Redman had 141 in November 2012 against the New York Giants.