Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has a way of making sure everyone watching him stays in a constant state of disbelief. It feels like no one in the NFL makes us go from "he did that?" to "he did that!" faster.
His latest dazzling display came in a game that should have been a pleasant stroll to another win for the surging Steelers, winners of five straight heading into Week 12. Instead, Brown had to drag his team kicking and screaming to a 31-28 win over the Green Bay Packers, an unexpectedly tough opponent under the bright Heinz Field lights, even with six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers injured.
The matchup had all the ingredients for another prime-time laugher in a 2017 season filled with them.
Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley was making just his fifth career start, and he'd surely be overwhelmed by a Steelers defense that came into the night ranked fourth in average yards given up per game (287.6) and second in points allowed (16.5). The Steelers have started to sizzle offensively, too, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fresh off a four-touchdown eruption during a 40-17 thumping of the Tennessee Titans.
But Hundley didn't play like an inexperienced quarterback. And for stretches Sunday, the Steelers didn't play like a title-contending team, as they committed costly mistakes. A game that seemed destined for blowout status was tied at halftime, at the end of the third quarter and again in the final seconds of the fourth.
The Steelers have a generational talent who they can lean on repeatedly, even when others around him are sputtering or the temperature of the team is slightly off against an inferior opponent. That's Brown, and his sideline ballet session throughout the evening was perhaps the most incredible yet in a career filled with them.
With just 17 seconds left in a tie game, the Steelers had the ball on their own 30-yard line. Getting into field-goal range would require a precise throw and a delicate catch against tight coverage. Roethlisberger did his part, and Brown came through as well when the margin for error was little more than a blade of grass.
The aforementioned disbelief kicked in right away. There was no way Brown could corral the ball as he stretched and leaped, with his momentum carrying him out of bounds, right? And surely he couldn't do all that while under duress, with an inch of grass to spare before the white sideline chalk.
We've seen Brown pull off similar acrobatic feats before. But the shock hasn't worn off yet, because each technically sound catch with little wiggle room seems more spectacular than the last.
That particular act of heroism went for 23 yards, but the Steelers still weren't quite in field-goal range yet. They were one play later when Brown hauled in a 14-yard reception along the sideline again before going out of bounds.
The game-winning boot was long, as the Steelers asked Chris Boswell to hit a 53-yard attempt. But that field goal—and the ensuing victory—was still possible because of Brown.
Brown finished the night with 169 receiving yards, 37 of which came on that final drive. The Steelers scored 17 second-half points to keep pace with a surprisingly feisty Packers offense, and Brown accounted for 14 of them with his two touchdowns paired with two Boswell extra points.
His scoring plays gave us reminders we didn't need, as Brown showed he can win matchups and sting defenses in multiple ways.
First, there was a goal-line fade to the back corner of the end zone, when he gained quick separation through fundamentally sound footwork. Brown sold the inside route and then deftly changed direction while sprinting toward the pylon.
The resulting gap of separation is pictured on the left below. On the right is the grappling 11-yard grab he made one play earlier to set up his own touchdown.
The 29-year-old finished with 10 catches, two of which went for 30-plus yards. He's recently taken his defensive back pretzel-twisting act to a new level, even by his generation-defining standards.
Over the Steelers' past two games, Brown has recorded 313 yards on 20 catches while scoring five times. Beyond that, he's now notched five 140-plus-yard games this season, which is both stunning and remarkably consistent high-level play.
Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell, who finished with 183 yards from scrimmage against the Packers, keep the Steelers' offensive heartbeat going. Brown is also often there to jolt that heart back to life when a game threatens to slip away, as he did again Sunday after the Steelers coughed up three turnovers and committed several momentum-changing penalties.
Brown can be a sort of offensive cleanser, rising above any ugliness to restore the Steelers' dominance.
He's been doing that within games, and Brown has gradually led the Steelers' offensive uprising throughout the season as well. Now a once-struggling unit looks explosive and dangerous again—and ready to contend for a title, too.