The Philadelphia Eagles had just pounded out a 17-play fourth-quarter touchdown drive that appeared to have three main features:
It covered the approximate length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
It felt as if it took longer.
It threw the Steelers over an embankment that was a whole lot steeper emotionally than the one-point deficit it would illuminate on the Heinz Field scoreboard.
There were still six-and-a-half minutes to play, but that was not so much a comfort as a threat. With that much time remaining in a bloody maulathhon of a football game, what additional shenanigans could Mike Tomlin's team get itself into?
To arrive at that point on a rainy afternoon, the Steelers dropped passes, fell down in the open field, veered inexplicably into green-on-white oncoming traffic, got called for holding, pass interference, holding, illegal formation, holding, false start, running out of bounds on a punt, unnecessary roughness, personal foul, and, I believe, failure to disperse.
In sum, as Ben Roethlisberger re-assembled his offense in the gloom of his 20, there was absolutely nothing to be confident about, particularly with the one player who actually appeared reliable in this episode inexplicably on the sideline -- Rashard Mendenhall.
"Throughout the whole process, I had prepared for this moment," Mendenhall shrugged about his rehab from knee surgery. "I knew I'd be fine."
That Mendenhall in his 2012 debut had scored the only Steelers touchdown Sunday, that he'd run better than any Steeler this season in his first attempts, and that he'd done it without evidence of physical difficulty wasn't enough to put him on the field for the first play of the final drive.
Roethlisberger instead handed the ball to Chris Rainey, who went nowhere just as Willie "Four Flags Over Pittsburgh" Colon netted his fourth holding call of the day to set up first-and-20 at the 10.
"I'm fighting like a dog out there," Colon said as part of his explanation, an unfortunate metaphor for any game involving Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, but Willie was just trying to be contrite. "I'll take ownership in that regard. I can't be hurting the team like that."
Ultimately it didn't matter. Mendenhall entered the game and the Steelers' balky offense started to hum again. After Mike Wallace dropped his third pass and Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown with his longest completion of the game, 20 yards to the 38 from a third-and-12 predicament, the backdrop was complete for the play that turned a likely Steelers loss into a looming victory.
It was a short pass that Mendenhall turned into a dagger the Eagles will think about through a long week. Mendenhall cradled it in the right flat and fled 15 yards into the panicked Philadelphia secondary, falling to the wet lawn at the Eagles 44 for a first down with only 3:10 left on the clock.
"It looked similar [to his second-quarter touchdown], but it just ended up happening like that; it was a designed swing and the tackle [Marcus Gilbert] was able to get down the field to get a block, so it worked pretty well," Mendenhall said.
It worked well enough that seven handoffs later, Sean "Sweezy Money" Suisham thumped home a 34-yard field goal as the clock expired on a 16-14 victory. Roethlisberger needed only one more throw in that sequence, a clutch 7-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders on third-and-4.
"That's my job," Sanders said flatly of a superb catch. "You've got to execute on those third downs regardless of how difficult the situation is."
Fortunately, for a Steelers team that came within a Sweezy shank of being 1-3, the Eagles were only too happy to assist in this one, with Vick fumbling this way and that, once into the Steelers end zone. Those two fumbles were Vick's 10th and 11th turnovers in five games, leaving both the quarterback and head coach Andy Reid without any reasonable explanation.
"He didn't want to come in and fumble the ball," Reid said helpfully. "That's not what he did. He tried to make plays and they hit the ball and knocked it out of his hands."
Reid's more cogent thoughts were on the impact on events by Mendenhall's return.
"They had a pretty good running back back."
Running back back? Lyrically speaking, I guess the Eagles were just glad to get their bloody black back pack back.
"I thought [Mendenhall] not only ran well and hard and caught the ball, but he was a source of energy for the unit," said Tomlin. "That's what great players do. They inspire those around them. I thought he did that for the group."
The group thus heads for Nashville and a Thursday prime-time appointment with the Titans. Should they still seek inspiration, perhaps the fellas can try something other than 29 penalties for 294 yards in the past last three games.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org