The 9-3 Los Angeles Chargers solidified their spot in the middle of the AFC playoff race with a dramatic 33-30 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Mike Badgley drilled the game-winning field goal to complete the Chargers' comeback on the final play after they found themselves behind by as many as 16 points. It was no routine winning field goal, though, as Pittsburgh went offside on the first two attempts—a miss and a block.
Los Angeles moved to within one game of the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs, while Pittsburgh dropped to 7-4-1 and just ahead of the 7-5 Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Philip Rivers won the duel between playoff-contending quarterbacks and finished 26-of-36 for 299 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, while Ben Roethlisberger went 29-of-45 for 281 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
It wasn't all quarterbacks, as Keenan Allen added 14 catches for 148 yards and a score for the victors.
Steelers' Late-Game Collapses Creating Much Tougher Path Through AFC
There is no other way to put it. Sunday was a complete collapse by the Steelers.
While the home team appeared in full control with the 16-point halftime lead, Antonio Brown (10 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown) making plays and James Conner finding the end zone twice before exiting with injury, the Chargers dictated the second half with explosive plays on the offensive side and enough defensive resistance to clinch the win.
Los Angeles ripped off an Allen touchdown catch and Antonio Gates two-pointer, a Desmond King punt-return touchdown (with a missed block in the back) and Allen two-pointer, and a Justin Jackson touchdown run to take the lead. While the Steelers battled back on their final drive with a Jaylen Samuels touchdown, they couldn't prevent the Chargers from driving for the winning field goal.
Even the offside calls on the field-goal attempts were further evidence of Pittsburgh falling apart.
That this comes after the Steelers blew a second-half lead in their last game to the Denver Broncos despite enjoying a 527-308 advantage in total yardage is worrisome for the typical contender.
The last loss prompted Roethlisberger to criticize Brown, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and James Washington during his weekly 93.7 radio segment (h/t Chris Adamskiof the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), and it is fair to wonder about the two-time defending AFC North champs with the Ravens riding a three-game winning streak following a 4-5 start.
The Steelers aren't pulling away from the Ravens, let alone setting themselves up to challenge the likes of the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Chargers in the AFC playoffs.
Even if they do win the division, they likely won't have home-field advantage in the later rounds against those teams. It's difficult to envision a Steelers squad that has struggled closing out games going on the road and beating multiple teams from that list of contenders to reach the Super Bowl.
The formula for winning on the road is often seizing an early lead to silence the crowd and controlling the game from there, not giving momentum back and allowing the crowd to get involved again.
The Steelers still have to play the Patriots and New Orleans Saints in their final four games, a troubling proposition, considering the Ravens are not going away with Lamar Jackson directing them to wins. That, combined with the daunting playoff opponents waiting in the second round and beyond if they do get that far, is setting up a situation where Pittsburgh will be watching the Super Bowl from home.
Derwin James Is the Clear-Cut Defensive Rookie of the Year
There wasn't much to feel good about from the Chargers' perspective when they entered the halftime locker room facing a 23-7 deficit save for one thing—the play of rookie safety Derwin James.
His talent was on full display with three pass deflections in the first half alone, as he thrived on an island against tight end Vance McDonald and maintained stride-for-stride with Pittsburgh's litany of talented receivers.
As if that weren't enough, he intercepted Roethlisberger at the Chargers' 8-yard line to end a potential scoring drive and limited the Steelers to a field goal later in the game with a third-down breakup. James also forced Brown out of bounds on a deep throw that would have set up Pittsburgh deep in Los Angeles territory.
Broadcaster Cris Collinsworth went as far as to say the Florida State product was "saving" the visitors and keeping them within striking distance.
It was more of the same for James, who is well on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year despite the fact that he was still available for the Chargers with the No. 17 overall pick.
Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com ranked him as the top rookie in the entire league and pointed to his versatility as someone who can rush the passer or drop back into coverage and either break up passes or deliver big hits in the middle of the field.
Robert Mays of The Ringer deemed James "the perfect defender for the modern NFL: a 215-pound chameleon who can blend in at any position, allowing the Chargers to combat any approach an opposing offense might take" and noted he was the only player in the league with 3.5 sacks, two picks and six quarterback hits.
The Defensive Rookie of the Year race is a crowded one with Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, Denver Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, among others, but James stands above the rest of the competition.
He is a leader on a defense that entered play fourth in the league in points allowed per game and has helped guide the Chargers into playoff contention even though they were without Joey Bosa until Nov. 18 because of injury. Bosa's absence could have derailed the defense, but James had other ideas.
Bosa won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, and the award is coming back to the Chargers this season.
Both teams face AFC foes in Week 14, with the Chargers hosting the Cincinnati Bengals and the Steelers at the Oakland Raiders.
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