Pittsburgh locked up the AFC North title on Sunday, righting a three-game losing skid and anemic offense that ultimately sunk the Steelers’ hopes for the conference’s top playoff seed.
After struggling again in the first half, the Steelers came back for a 28-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field. A loss and a Cleveland Browns victory would have set up a winner-take-all showdown for the North in Week 17.
The Steelers trailed 21-7, and the only score came off a defensive fumble recovery that set the Steelers up 3 yards from the end zone. It still took four tries to get it across.
The second half was a completely different story as the offense came to life. After a turnover on downs during its first possession of the third quarter, Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on the ensuing three possessions and took its first lead in 10 quarters at 28-24.
It was the largest second-half comeback of coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure. The defense shut down Colts quarterback Philip Rivers’ attempt at a game-winning drive and the Steelers (12-3), at least temporarily, seem to be back in playoff mode.
The Colts (10-5) are fighting for a playoff spot and needed a victory to boost their cause. They’re in the hunt for the AFC South title with the Tennessee Titans, who play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, and a wild-card spot with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Chiefs (14-1) snatched the AFC’s top seed with a victory on Sunday.
Ugly start: Sputtering Steelers keep struggling
The first half was an ugly showing from Pittsburgh with only 93 yards of offense and a second-quarter touchdown set up by the defense. The Steelers went into the locker room trailing and making their 11-0 start look like a long-lost fantasy.
The Steelers started the game with a quick three-and-out and fell behind, 7-0. It was their sixth straight game with zero points in the first quarter, made worse by the 2 total yards of offense.
After a combined three punts, T.J. Watt sacked Rivers on an 8-yard loss and forced the fumble, which Mike Hilton recovered on the Colts’ 3-yard line. James Conner finally got it in the end zone on a third-and-goal.
It was the only bright spot for Pittsburgh in the first half. Its longest drive was 41 yards on three plays when it got the ball with 14 seconds until the half. The Steelers couldn’t get anything going on the ground, accumulating 4 yards on seven carries.
Rivers was 9-for-12 for 153 yards and a touchdown 42-yard pass to Zach Pascal. The Colts had 77 rushing yards on 20 carries
Turnover on downs ignites Steelers offense
The turnover at the goal line appeared at first to be the final note on the Steelers’ ugly late-season collapse. They had five tries within 5 yards of the end zone and still couldn’t punch it in. Ben Roethlisberger had four passes go incomplete, capped by T.J. Carrie’s tip.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) December 27, 2020
Instead of lowering the Steelers’ spirits, the play seemed to have the opposite impact. The defense immediately forced a punt and Roethlisberger came out to hit Diontae Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown pass.
Another three-and-out, another Steelers touchdown. They went 74 yards on five plays, eating up 1:51 from the clock as Eric Ebron spun over the line on a a 5-yard touchdown pass. JuJu Smith-Schuster later caught a 25-yard touchdown pass to take the lead, and Hilton intercepted a deep pass down the middle by Rivers to help seal the win.
Pittsburgh had 260 yards of offense in the second half to finish at 353 while the defense kept the Colts to 148 second-half yards. They sacked Philips five times for a loss of 32 yards.
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