The Pittsburgh Steelers had their six-game winning streak snapped by a gutsy effort from the Denver Broncos, who withstood a huge yardage disadvantage to walk away with a surprising 24-17 victory at home.
So many things seemed to be going right for Pittsburgh. The team had trailed 10-3 early but evened the score just before halftime on a trick play. A direct-snap to Chris Boswell, the team’s place-kicker, resulted in a 1-yard touchdown pass to Alejandro Villanueva, an offensive tackle. The Steelers then took the lead early in the third quarter on a 97-yard catch-and-run by JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Steelers, who looked nearly unbeatable on both sides of the ball in previous weeks, had the lead and the momentum, and the game seemed all but wrapped up.
But as the Broncos have done so many times this season, they kept themselves in the game despite being outplayed.
“You get knocked down, you get back up and you go,” Broncos quarterback Case Keenum said at his postgame news conference. “That’s just kind of ingrained in us just through everything we’ve been through.”
Von Miller, the team’s standout linebacker, was in no mood to celebrate despite the Broncos having beaten teams on six-game winning streaks in back-to-back games. He evoked memories of a famous Bill Belichick news conference from 2014 in which the head coach of the New England Patriots replied to multiple questions by saying they were “on to Cincinnati.”
Miller punctuated his answers with the phrase, and even when asked directly if he was channeling Belichick, Miller did not break character. Instead, he credited Shelby Harris’s game-saving interception for the win, saying: “We had a great win today, a great team win. Shelby had an incredible day, but it’s on to Cincinnati.”
Denver’s comeback began when Chris Harris Jr. intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Antonio Brown in the third quarter. Just two plays later, the Broncos had tied the game with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Emmanuel Sanders.
Another Pittsburgh turnover — this one a fumble by James Conner — helped set up Denver for the go-ahead drive in which Keenum led his team 79 yards in 11 plays, with Phillip Lindsay, the team’s undrafted rookie running back, taking the ball into the end zone on a 2-yard run.
The game was in doubt until the final two minutes when Roethlisberger marched Pittsburgh down the field, reaching Denver’s 2-yard line. But in a final offensive play that looked broken from the start, Roethlisberger awkwardly executed a play-action fake before tossing the ball over the offensive line and into the waiting hands of Denver’s Shelby Harris, a nose tackle, who secured the game-saving interception.
“I actually didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” Harris said of the play, “but it ended up working out pretty well.”
Harris, who elaborated that he should have been charging toward the line instead of hanging back, briefly considered trying to return the ball, but the 289-pounder was simply too tired.
When asked if he thought Roethlisberger had seen him on the play, Harris laughed and said, “I don’t know, but the ball saw me.”
Pittsburgh outgained the Broncos, with 527 total yards to Denver’s 308, and Roethlisberger passed for a whopping 462 yards. But none of that mattered thanks to four Steelers turnovers.
Keenum completed 15 of 28 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns, and Lindsay led Denver’s rushing attack with 110 yards.
Their efforts helped offset a huge game by Pittsburgh’s offense in which Conner had 95 yards from scrimmage and Smith-Schuster had 10 catches for 189 yards. The second-year wide receiver’s 97-yard score made him the first player in N.F.L. history to have two career 97-yard offensive touchdowns.
The win improved the Broncos’s record to 5-6 and dropped the Steelers to 7-3-1. As Miller said, Denver is now “on to Cincinnati,” where the Broncos will try to get back to .500 in a road game against the Bengals. Pittsburgh will face a stiff test at home from the Los Angeles Chargers.