Two-thirds of the way into Sunday's game, it appeared that the Steelers' downward spiral was going to last at least another week. But just when it appeared that a fourth consecutive loss was inevitable, the Steelers rose up and made the plays that they had failed to make in recent weeks.
Down 24-7, three Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes in less than 11 minutes propelled the Steelers to a come-from-behind, 28-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts. With the win, the Steelers ended a three-game losing streak while clinching their first AFC North division title since 2017. The Colts, who came to Pittsburgh with a three-game winning streak, are 10-5 entering the final week of the regular season. Indianapolis' playoff probability has dipped from 85% to 76%, according to SportsLine date scientist Stephen Oh.
Two Jonathan Taylor touchdown runs, along with Phillip Rivers' 42-yard touchdown pass to Zach Pascal, had given the Colts a 21-7 halftime lead. But after falling behind 24-7, Big Ben and the Steelers' offense woke up, as Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson (39 yards), Eric Ebron (five yards) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (25 yards) to take a four-point lead with 7:38 to play. Rivers, who threw an interception on the Colts' ensuing possession, managed to get Indianapolis to the Steelers' 33-yard-line on their final possession before firing three straight incomplete passes.
Why the Steelers won
For the first time in over a month, the Steelers played complementary football. The Steelers' first touchdown was set up by T.J. Watt's forced fumble of Rivers in the first quarter. After the Steelers' offense started to take flight, Pittsburgh's defense came up with three consecutive punts and an interception by Mike Hilton. Hilton also scooped up Watt's forced fumble that set up James Conner's first-quarter touchdown run.
The Steelers received strong defensive performances by Watt, Hilton, and rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, whose pressure of Rivers led to his interception after the Steelers had taken the lead late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers will need to continue to receive similar efforts from Highsmith, who is replacing injured starter Bud Dupree in the starting lineup.
Pittsburgh would not have won this game if not for Roethlisberger and his receivers, who managed to come up with pivotal catches after struggling to do so during the first three weeks of December. Smith-Schuster led the way with 96 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions, while Johnson caught eight passes that included his 39-yard score that started the Steelers' comeback.
Why the Colts lost
Everything the Colts did right in building their 24-7 lead, they failed to do during the game's final 20 minutes. After the Steelers started cutting into their lead, the Colts went away from Taylor, whose two early touchdowns helped them build their 17-point lead. Instead of running on first down, the Colts started throwing, which led to far too many second and third-and-long situations.
The Colts' under-manned offensive line — which played without starting offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith — was unable to properly protect Rivers down the stretch. The Colts' defense didn't help matters either, as they were unable to slow down Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense once Pittsburgh started to find its rhythm. The Colts' secondary also committed four penalties in the second half that contributed to the Steelers' three unanswered touchdowns.
Rivers, in defeat, did make some NFL history on Sunday, as his touchdown pass to Pascal put him in tie with Dan Marino for fifth all-time in career touchdown passes. Rivers has lobbed 420 touchdowns during his 17-year career.
The Colts had a 24-7 lead and all of the momentum after T.J. Carrie broke up Big Ben's pass intended for James Washington on fourth and goal with 5:01 left in the third quarter. But after the Colts' goal line stop, Pittsburgh's defense forced its first of three consecutive Indianapolis punts. On their first play after the Colts' punt, Roethlisberger lofted a 39-yard bomb to Johnson, who held onto the ball while igniting the Steelers' comeback.
Play of the game
Smith-Schuster, whose logo dancing received heavy criticism in the days leading up to Sunday's game, gave Pittsburgh the lead for good when he hung onto Roethlisberger's 25-yard strike with 7:38 left. While he is still waiting for his first 100-yard game of the season, Smith-Schuster recorded a season-best 96 yards on Sunday. He also went over the 90-catch mark for the second time in his four-year career.
"Victory is sweet. It's been a month or so for us. We've been through some adversity, but there's growth in the midst of that. Hopefully, these negative experiences can galvanize us and strengthen us as we move forward. We've got some big battles that lie ahead, but today, we're humbled and honored to be AFC North champs." — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who won his eighth division title in his 14th season in Pittsburgh
"We missed on some opportunities in the first half. I don't know if it was that dramatic. It's a fine line between drinking fine wine and squashing grapes as we say in this business … We didn't change drastically in terms of our approach … We just acknowledged that we had some opportunities that we didn't make, and we needed to make more plays in the second half in all three phases. And that's the mentality that we took the field with." — Tomlin on what changed with his team after halftime
The Steelers will travel to Cleveland to face the 10-5 Browns, who will surely be in revenge mode after getting blown out by Pittsburgh back in Week 6. The Colts will host the one-win Jaguars, who clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft after falling to the Bears on Sunday.
Check out our live blog below to re-live Sunday's action in real time.