It came on 3rd-and-13, deep in their own territory: Ben Roethlisberger held the ball his customary half a second too long and managed to find tight end Jesse James streaking down the middle of the field for 16 yards, a first down, and a glimmer of hope for the Steelers.
That completion was Roethlisberger’s 61st pass attempt of the game Sunday night. It came two plays after he was sacked by Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and one play from from losing at home to the rival Ravens.
Instead, Roethlisberger managed to make another big play when his team needed one most. And three plays later, Antonio Brown caught a 34-yard pass deep down the right sideline, putting the Steelers into field goal range down two points, and bumping Roethlisberger over 500 yards passing in the process.
Chris Boswell hit a 46-yard field goal with 46 seconds to play to give Pittsburgh a 39-38 lead and, for the first time in what felt like all night, the Steelers defense actually held the Ravens, securing the victory and locking up the AFC North division for the third time in four seasons.
The King of the North! The Steelers are division champs, which guarantees Pittsburgh at least one home playoff game this season. A win next week over New England could lock up a first round bye and possibly home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Yet while much of the focus has been on next week’s matchup with the Patriots, it cannot be overstated how big this win was for Pittsburgh, particularly with Jacksonville winning Sunday. As one of the only teams to beat the Steelers, the Jags would own the tiebreaker should both finish with the same record. In holding off Baltimore, the Steelers were able to keep two games ahead of the Jags, meaning that even if they lose to New England next week, the goal for a first-round bye is still on schedule.
It wasn’t easy for the Steelers Sunday. In the wake of losing linebacker Ryan Shazier with his horrific spinal injury last weekend, the defense bent and bent and bent some more, but with the game on the line they did not break, honoring their fallen teammate throughout the night, but perhaps no more fittingly than with the huge defensive stop to end the game.
The team dedicated their division title to Shazier, who was able to experience the celebration with them from the hospital via FaceTime. And yet, while the season has become about winning for their fallen teammate, the story of this contest was all about how the offense rose to the occasion. The big stars were needed time and time again, and the Killer Bs stepped up in a way few ever have.
Roethlisberger was 44-of-66 on the night for 506 yards and two touchdown passes. He was sacked three times, but did not fumble and despite throwing several balls into coverage or flat-out up for grabs, he was not picked off the entire game.
The 44 completions are the second-most for any player in a regular season game ever, one behind the 45 Drew Bledsoe had for New England on November 13, 1994.
Overall, with what was on the line heading into the final four weeks of this season, it was as good a game as Roethlisberger has played in years.
After the win, he spoke with NBC’s Michele Tafoya and gave credit to the other two members of the Killer Bs, saying, “they’re really really good. It’s fun. I’m the luckiest quarterback in the league —to have the line that I have and to have all the weapons that I have.”
So what about his top target?
Antonio Brown could be the most valuable player in the NFL this season. He won’t win MVP, but he might be MVP, if that makes any sense.
The MVP has become a de facto quarterback award, with running backs occasionally winning it in record-setting seasons. Wide receivers just do not win NFL MVP, but Brown is having such a special season and the Steelers rely on him so heavily, he’ll certainly garner some votes.
Brown came into the weekend leading the league in receptions and yards, and caught 11 balls for 213 yards against the Ravens defense, the fifth time he’s gone past 150 yards this season, and the most he’s had in a regular season game since November 8, 2015, when he had 17 catches for 284 yards in a win over the Raiders. Sunday night’s win was just the second time Brown has ever gone over 200 yards receiving in a game, and it pushed his season total to 1,509 yards receiving. In 13 games.
But if we’re talking MVP candidates, we cannot forget about Bell.
Bell rushed for just 48 yards on 13 carries as the Steelers offense all-but abandoned the run. But Bell did have two rushing touchdowns, adding a third on one of his nine receptions. In all, Bell had 22 touches for 125 yards and three scores, MVP-caliber numbers on any team in the league…that doesn’t have Brown.
Bell came into the game with already more than 1,000 yards on the ground, and while his rushing total was modest, he’s over 1,100 yards rushing and 550 yards receiving, with nine touchdowns on the season. And remember, after sitting out the entire preseason, Bell had himself a slow start to the year, totaling just 47 yards the first week of the season. What he’s done since is nothing short of remarkable.
The Steelers head into Week 14 at 11-2 with two legitimate MVP candidates and a quarterback who just threw for 500 yards. And while we’re noting how good the Steelers Bs have been, let’s not forget Boswell, who kicked another game-winner on Sunday.
The Steelers are hardly a complete team right now, as injuries have hampered the defense. Next week against New England will be a huge test, but winning against New England could mean facing them again in the playoffs at Heinz Field, not in Foxboro. First things first, the Steelers beat the Ravens, won another division title and got through the possible let-down game after losing Shazier for the season. The stars made sure of it.