PITTSBURGH — Their once-promising season on the brink of a full-out collapse, the Pittsburgh Steelers headed to the locker room for halftime at Heinz Field on Sunday still searching for the team that began the season with 11 straight victories.
Ben Roethlisberger believed it was still in there somewhere. Even as the losses in December piled up. Even as the offence spent weeks stuck in neutral. Even as attrition pecked away at one of the NFL's best defences .
And even as the Steelers spent the first half against Indianapolis seemingly in a full-out sprint to get to the off-season as quickly as possible.
“Sometimes you need a little shock to yourself to believe again,” Roethlisberger said.
One 39-yard rope from the player who has symbolized the team's erratic play perhaps more than any other provided that jolt. It revived Pittsburgh's floundering season and delivered the Steelers the AFC North title.
Listless and lifeless for the better part of a month, Roethlisberger threw three second-half touchdowns — starting with a third-quarter strike to a fully horizontal Diontae Johnson — as the Steelers rallied past stunned Indianapolis 28-24 to win their first division title since 2017.
The 38-year-old Roethlisberger, who looked every bit his age and then some during Pittsburgh's recent slide, snapped out of it while completing 34 of 49 passes for 342 yards. He ditched the dink-and-dunk approach that had worked during the early portion of the season but became far too predictable during his team's December swoon.
The reward is at least one home playoff game. The Steelers (12-3) sported T-shirts that read “Won Not Done” during a celebration fueled equally by joy and relief. The swag had been at the ready for a few weeks only to be shelved as losses to Washington, Buffalo and, shockingly, Cincinnati piled up.
Yet head coach Mike Tomlin stressed there was no time to panic, believing his team was close.
“It’s a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes and sometimes it was very subtle,” Tomlin said.
Maybe, but the difference between the team that went into the locker room bullied and the one that outscored the Colts 21-0 over the final 18:16 was not. The defence kept Philip Rivers, rookie running back Jonathan Taylor and Indianapolis out of the end zone in the second half. Johnson, who leads the NFL in drops season, sparked the rally with a diving grab as he sailed across the goal line.
“We’ve all had our struggles of late,” Tomlin said. "This is a fighter’s business. This is a competitor’s business. I expect all to smile in the face of adversity and he did.”
Pittsburgh scored on its next two possessions, a 5-yard flip from Roethlisberger to Eric Ebron and a 25-yard dart in between two defenders from Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Indianapolis, so dominant during a first half in which it outgained the Steelers 206-28, had two chances to reclaim the lead. The first drive ended with Rivers throwing an interception deep in Pittsburgh territory. The second ended with Rivers' heave to Zach Pascal sailing high on fourth down.
Indianapolis could not have clinched a playoff berth with a victory anyway after Miami and Baltimore won. Still, it would have made the path significantly easier. Now, not so much.
“We gave them (the Steelers) life,” Rivers said. "We’ve been on the other side of those. They were the aggressor as it got to be a 10-point game, a 3-point game and I don’t mean that from a play-calling standpoint, it just had that feel like ‘oh boy,’ and we were trying to hang on.”
Rivers finished 22 of 35 for 270 yards with a touchdown and a pick. Taylor ran for 74 yards and two touchdowns but basically disappeared over the final two quarters.
"Very disappointed,” Indianapolis coach Frank Reich said. “When we had everything to play for, we just didn’t have all the answers in the second half of a game we had to have. I’m not doubting the coaches or the players. We had a bad game, a bad half and we weren’t able to finish it off. We’ve got to learn from it, get better next week and get some help.”
Help didn't look necessary after Taylor's two first-half touchdowns against a defence that looked overmatched helped the Colts forge a 24-7 lead heading into the final stages of the third quarter.
One throw from Roethlisberger turned the momentum and — the Steelers hope — the arc of their season.
Colts: end the season the way they started, by facing the Jaguars. Jacksonville stunned Indianapolis 27-20 in Week 1; Jacksonville hasn't won since.
Steelers: travel to Cleveland in a game that is relatively meaningless for Pittsburgh but means plenty to the Browns (10-5), who have yet to earn a playoff berth. Tomlin said he's not sure how many starters he might sit in the finale.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press