Monday, December 23, 2013

Steelers keep playoff hopes alive

By Scott Brown
December 22, 2013

Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (26) leaps over Green Bay Packers' Morgan Burnett during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. Photo: Mike Roemer, AP / FR155603 AP
Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (26 carries, 124 yards) leaps over Green Bay Packers' Morgan Burnett during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. Photo: Mike Roemer, AP

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- A punter with a distinct Aussie accent completed arguably the most important pass of the game. 

A defensive end who hadn't played more than 10 snaps since the middle of November produced a sack and recovered a fumble that led to the late touchdown that set up a wild finish at snowy Lambeau Field. 

A defense that might have taken the field with only some light clean-up work had coach Mike Tomlin played the percentages needed to make a last-second goal-line stand to preserve the Steelers' 38-31 win against the Packers on Sunday, ensuring Pittsburgh's playoff hopes survived another day. 

The victory came in spite of the Steelers. But the improbable nature of the win seemed as apropos as the snow that coated the field at legendary Lambeau three days before Christmas. 

The Steelers' alter ego has tried to sabotage this season countless times already -- including several times against the Packers -- and yet this team still ticks. 

The Steelers are 7-8, and they will go into their final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. They still need a lot to happen, but the Steelers should be able to at least take care of their own business next Sunday --- and in less dramatic fashion than what transpired at Lambeau. 

They play the 4-11 Browns in a 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field, which will suddenly have many fewer empty seats than recently expected. 

"There's a chance," defensive end Brett Keiselsaid with a smile. "And we're going to fight." 

And that is the rub on the latest edition of the Steelers, who have shown a knack for responding when pushed to the brink. 

And you thought the Steelers had no identity. 

"I think tonight showed there's no quit in this team," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, "That's who we are." 

Now let's talk about where they are with just one game left on the schedule. 

"Still not going to talk about it, because we have to take care of our business," Roethlisberger said of the 'P' word. "I don't even know what the scenario is, but I'm sure it's still pretty crazy." 

It got a lot less crazy by the end of the afternoon games on Sunday. 

The Steelers got what they needed in wins from the Bills and Jets, and they can live with the Chargers beating the hapless Raiders. 

They almost didn't hold up their end, squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead before scoring a late touchdown and then hanging on for dear life. 

A compelling if not always cleanly played game -- the teams combined for 16 penalties -- could have turned following a bizarre sequence in the third quarter. 

The Steelers defense made an inspiring stand after Le'Veon Bell lost a fumble at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. Steve McLendon blocked a short Mason Crosby field-goal attempt and Ryan Clark scooped up the loose ball. 

Clark tried to lateral it to William Gay but when the ball landed on the turf Ziggy Hoodswatted it out of bounds. Officials ruled that there had never been a change of possession and they awarded the Packers the ball and a first down after an illegal batting call on Hood.

An irate Tomlin tried to challenge the call that was made after a lengthy discussion among officials, but it was not reviewable. Tomlin seethed about the call even after the game. 

"They screwed it up in my opinion," Tomlin said. 

The Steelers nearly did the same after rebounding from that deflating swing with a pair of touchdowns. 

They blew a 10-point lead before Keisel pounced on a loose ball that was a result of a Troy Polamalu strip-tackle with just under two minutes left in the game. 

The Packers delivered an early Christmas present when Nick Perry hopped offsides beforeShaun Suisham's 27-yard field goal attempt. 

The Steelers had a first down at the 5-yard line with 1:35 left in the game. With the Packers having only one timeout remaining, Tomlin could have killed much of the clock and sent Suisham out for the equivalent of an extra point. 

"I'm not into that," Tomlin said of having Roethlisberger take a knee twice after Bell had reached the 1-yard line. "Given an opportunity to score, we are going to score." 

The score held up because rookie Shamarko Thomas chased down Micah Hyde after a 70-yard kickoff return and the Steelers defense had one more stand in it -- albeit barely. 

The story of the game, at least from the Steelers' vantage point, could have been questionable coaching decisions and the sequence that gave the Packers that ball back after a blocked field goal. 

Instead, the story was punter Mat McBriar throwing a 30-yard pass -- on his second read, no less -- after a perfectly called fake punt that served as a precursor to a wild third quarter. 

It was Keisel, who still has trouble putting weight on his injured heel, making two of the biggest plays near the end of the game -- and near the end of his Steelers career. 

It was about the improbable adding up to what seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago: the Steelers having a chance to play beyond Dec. 29 this season. 

"You've got to give our whole team credit for continuing to fight," Keisel said, "for continuing to believe."

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