GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s hard to say what was more improbable Sunday.
That the Steelers got enough big plays from heroes — likely and unlikely — to overcome a crippling blown call by the game officials and some curious strategy by coach Mike Tomlin to beat the Green Bay Packers, 38-31.
Or that the Steelers walked off the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field — a snow globe on this wintry day — with their playoff chances still alive, though barely.
“It’s crazy,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
I vote for the playoff thing.
Who would have thought when the Steelers were 0-4, 2-6 and 5-8 that they would go into the final weekend of this wacky NFL season with hope? It isn’t much really. They have to beat the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Heinz Field and get wins from Cincinnati against Baltimore, the New York Jets against Miami and Kansas City against San Diego. But it’s something. It’s possible, sure, because Miami and Baltimore lost Sunday and the Jets won. But none of it would have mattered if the Steelers hadn’t taken care of business against a desperate Packers team to produce their most astonishing win of the season.
“That’s who we are,” Roethlisberger said. “I think we showed tonight there’s no quit in this team.”
Familiar players made big contributions, notably safety Troy Polamalu, who made the defensive play of the game by forcing a fumble by quarterback Matt Flynn at the Packers 17 to set up the winning touchdown. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had six catches for 105 yards to go with a 41-yard punt return. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell had another strong day with 26 carries for 124 yards, ending a Steelers streak of 22 games without a 100-yard rusher and prompting Tomlin to say of him, “He is a complete player and an all-situation player.” Roethlisberger threw two more touchdown passes but maybe made his biggest play by scrambling for a 13-yard touchdown early in the third quarter.
But how about those unlikely heroes? Reserve tight end Matt Spaeth caught an 11-yard touchdown pass. Cornerback Cortez Allen returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel, playing on a bad foot and likely down to his final days with the Steelers, got a late sack and then a fumble recovery to help set up the winning touchdown. Special-teamer Shamarko Thomas saved what would have been a tying touchdown on a late kickoff return. Punter Mat McBriar ran a fake and completed a 30-yard pass to another backup tight end, David Paulson, an instant before he was roughed by Green Bay’s Jake Stoneburner.
It was no wonder there was a sense of satisfaction in the Steelers’ locker room. You’ve heard of a team win? This was one.
“It was a tough environment to come in and do the job so I just compliment our football team on their mettle and singular focus in the midst of a lot of adversity,” Tomlin said.
Some of it was brought on by Tomlin, who congratulated his players on turning “a couple of calculated gambles” into “good calls.” The fake punt was one. The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 48 with 4:49 left and the score tied, 31-31, was another. Roethlisberger threw a 6-yard pass to fullback Will Johnson to convert that first down.
Then, there was Tomlin’s decision to have Bell score the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1:25 left. It seems nuts to second-guess it, but it gave the Packers a chance to tie and send the game into overtime. They were out of timeouts at that point. If Roethlisberger had taken two knees, Shaun Suisham could have come on to kick a gimme field goal with virtually no time left.
“I’m not into that,” Tomlin said. “We had an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone. With weather conditions like that, anything can happen.”
The Steelers defense seemingly had a big stop taken away because of a blown call. After Bell lost a fumble at the Steelers 3 leading, 17-14, late in the third quarter, the defense forced the Packers to settle for a 23-yard field-goal try by Mason Crosby. Nose tackle Steve McLendon blocked the kick. Safety Ryan Clark picked up the ball and lateraled it to teammate William Gay, who dropped it, before teammate Ziggy Hood batted it out of bounds. The officials ruled Clark never had possession and penalized Hood for illegal batting, giving the ball back to the Packers at the Steelers 2. They scored a touchdown on the next play.
In the end, the call didn’t matter. The Steelers made enough plays to win what Keisel called “a game to remember.” Now, they get to play one more game Sunday. Not just a game, but a meaningful game.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.