Pittsburgh — There was no explosion necessary, really. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t need a reminder how badly they looked while falling behind Denver by two touchdowns at halftime Sunday, even though linebackers coach Joey Porter decided to provide one anyway.
“I think everybody was (ticked) off,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I don’t think it was just Joey. We all knew we played (terribly) in the first half. We really just had to wake up.”
The NFL’s best offense provided the alarm clock.
Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns as the Steelers rallied for a 34-27 win to move into the AFC’s second wild-card spot with two weeks remaining. Antonio Brown caught 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores, and Pittsburgh (9-5) dominated the NFL’s best defense after spotting the Broncos a 17-point lead.
“If we take care of the ball, we feel like we can go up and down the field on anyone,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Including the No Fly Zone, the nickname Denver’s secondary gave itself, talk the Broncos have backed up for much of the year. Just not this time. The Steelers controlled the second half, finally taking the lead when Ryan Shazier intercepted Brock Osweiler to set up a 23-yard dart from Roethlisberger to Brown with 3:24 to go.
Pittsburgh’s defense made it stand up. The Steelers twice stopped the Broncos in Pittsburgh territory over the final minutes.
“It’s very disappointing,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “That’s this business. You better be built for four quarters, not three.”
Osweiler threw for 296 yards with three touchdowns passing and another on the ground but bruised his left shoulder in the second quarter and wasn’t the same when he returned as the Broncos (10-4) lost their second straight and failed to lock up the AFC West title. Osweiler will have X-rays on Monday to determine if there’s any more damage. He completed just 7 of 26 passes for 84 yards after halftime, including the pick that set up Brown’s winning score.
Emmanuel Sanders caught 10 passes for a career-high 181 yards and a score in his first game against his former team. Demaryius Thomas hauled in a pair of touchdowns, but the Broncos were shut out in the second half for the third consecutive week and are just 3-4 following a 7-0 start.
“You play 60 minutes, not 30 minutes,” Osweiler said. “That is something we will work on and we will fix.”
Who gets a chance to do the fixing is unclear. Osweiler’s grasp on the starting job appeared tenuous coming in after the offense failed to find the end zone in a home loss to Oakland last Sunday.
Peyton Manning returned to practice last week for the first time in a month as he continues to recover from torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The NFL’s all-time passing leader traveled with the team and signed dozens of autographs in the pregame, save for any of Pittsburgh’s yellow Terrible Towels, which Manning shunned when thrust his way.
Perhaps it provided inspiration for Osweiler, who spent a half forcing the largest crowd in Heinz Field history to keep their favorite linens tucked safely in their pockets as Denver raced up and down the field.
The Broncos had gone 24 straight possessions without an offensive touchdown before reaching the end zone four straight times. Osweiler hit Thomas for an 18-yard score then found Sanders for an easy 61-yard catch and run. Osweiler stumbled his 6-foot-7 frame across the goal line to make it 20-7 and when Thomas stiff-armed Pittsburgh’s Antwon Blake to finish off a 6-yard touchdown, the Broncos were up 27-10.
Yet just as quickly as Denver’s momentum appeared, it vanished. The group that converted its first eight third downs went just 1 for 8 in those situations in the second half, giving Roethlisberger time to get going.
A pretty lob to the back corner of the end zone to Brown pulled Pittsburgh within 27-20. The Steelers then caught the break they needed thanks to some overanxious Broncos. Pittsburgh punted late in the third quarter and two Steelers attempted to down it, only to whiff. A couple of Denver linemen — all the way on the other side of the field — thought the play was dead. It wasn’t. Jordan Norwood had scooped up the ball and zig-zagged 71 yards for a score that should have restored a two-touchdown lead. The flag for illegal substitution wiped out the score, and the Broncos went three-and-out.
Pittsburgh tied it at 27 on its next possession, with Wheaton scooting in from 9 yards out and dancing a little jig with Brown. A half-hour later Brown was celebrating after putting the Steelers up for good.
“You want to be the best, you’ve got to be the best,” Brown said. “There’s no stopping me.”
Arizona 40, (at) Philadelphia 17: David Johnson ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns, Carson Palmer threw a TD pass and Arizona clinched the NFC West title. The Cardinals (12-2) will earn a first-round bye with a win over Green Bay next week. They still have a chance to secure the No. 1 seed if they win out and Carolina loses its last two games. The Eagles (6-8) would win the NFC East title if they beat Washington at home and the Giants on the road.
The Cardinals outclassed Philadelphia in every way on their way to their eighth straight win.
Johnson, a rookie filling in for injured backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, had a pair of 1-yard TD runs and a 47-yarder. Palmer gave Cardinals fans a brief scare when he came out for one play after injuring his right index finger on a throw. But he returned to toss a 16-yard TD pass to John Brown and finished 20 of 32 for 274 yards. Deone Bucannon returned Sam Bradford’s interception 39 yards for a touchdown to give Arizona a 37-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, sending fans to the exits.
(At) Seattle 30, Cleveland 13: Russell Wilson continued his record pace by throwing three touchdown passes, two to Doug Baldwin, and the Seahawks clinched a playoff spot for the fourth straight season.
Seattle (9-5) won its fifth straight and, thanks to losses this week by Tampa Bay and the New York Giants, wrapped up a postseason berth.
Wilson was 21 of 30 for 249 yards. He found Baldwin on TDs of 6 and 3 yards in the first half, then hit Tyler Lockett on a 27-yard TD strike on the first play of the fourth quarter. Wilson became the first quarterback with three or more TD passes and no interceptions in five straight games.
Johnny Manziel threw a 7-yard TD to Gary Barnidge on the first drive for the Browns (3-11).
Green Bay 30, (at) Oakland 20: Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass and Damarious Randall returned an interception for another score to help Green Bay.
Green Bay (10-4) clinched a spot in the postseason in the first quarter when the New York Giants lost to Carolina. But the Packers still have their eyes set on a division title and remain one game ahead of Minnesota in the NFC North.
Derek Carr threw two early interceptions to put Oakland (6-8) in a hole but then had a pair of touchdown passes to Amari Cooper. It wasn’t enough as the Raiders were eliminated from playoff contention for the 13th straight season.
Cincinnati 24, (at) San Francisco 14: Jeremy Hill ran for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns to back AJ McCarron’s first career start, and the Bengals clinched a fifth straight postseason berth,
As Andy Dalton watched from the sideline with a large cast over his broken right thumb, McCarron threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Kroft just before halftime as the Bengals (11-3) forced three second-quarter turnovers by San Francisco (4-10) to take command.
Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones each made interceptions on balls that deflected off the hands of tight end Vance McDonald. Cincinnati capitalized with touchdowns on two of the turnovers, including Kroft’s TD catch one play and five seconds after the second pick.
(At) Minnesota 38, Chicago 17: Teddy Bridgewater threw a career-high four touchdowns and ran for another, and the Vikings took a big step toward clinching a playoff spot.
Bridgewater completed 17 of 20 passes for 231 yards without a turnover, connecting twice with Stefon Diggs for scores. Jerick McKinnon and Zach Line had the other touchdown catches on a remarkably productive afternoon for all of Minnesota’s running backs.
Adrian Peterson missed some time because of an injury to his left ankle, but finished with 63 yards to maintain his NFL rushing lead. The Vikings are 9-5. The Bears are 5-9.
(At) San Diego 30, Miami 14: Danny Woodhead had his first career four-touchdown game and Philip Rivers recovered a fumble on a play that began with him throwing an interception in what might have been the final NFL game in San Diego.
Woodhead caught TD passes of 20, 9 and 9 yards, and scored on a 2-yard run for the Chargers (4-10), who failed to score a touchdown in each of their previous two home games. Miami (5-9) lost for the fourth time in five games.
The Chargers Cannon went off. The disco ditty “San Diego Super Chargers” blared for what might be the final time.
It could all be over after 55 seasons if NFL owners allow Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos to move to an industrial suburb of Los Angeles and build a stadium with the rival Oakland Raiders.
(At) Washington 35, Buffalo 25: Kirk Cousins equaled his career high with four touchdown passes and ran 13 yards for another score, helping Washington win consecutive games for the first time in more than a year and stay atop the NFC East.
While Washington (7-7) moved closer to a playoff berth, the Bills (6-8) are now assured of missing the postseason for the 16th year in a row, the NFL’s longest active drought.
Making first-year Bills head coach Rex Ryan’s defense look inept, and helped by a key fourth-down encroachment penalty on Buffalo, Washington scored TDs on each of its first three possessions for the first time since September 1999, grabbing a 21-0 lead in the second quarter.
Kansas City 34, (at) Baltimore 14: Kansas City capitalized on a variety of miscues by Baltimore, extended its winning streak to eight games and remain in the thick of the playoff picture.
Tyvon Branch returned a fumble 73 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and Marcus Peters clinched the victory with a 90-yard interception return for a score with 4:36 left.
Kansas City (9-5) also scored touchdowns following a drive-extending penalty by Baltimore and a failed fake punt.
With the win, the Chiefs became the first NFL team to follow a five-game slide with eight successive wins in the same season.
Baltimore (4-10) is 2-5 at home — the first time in its 20-year history the team has lost five home games.
Houston 16, (at) Indianapolis 10: Brandon Weeden replaced injured quarterback T.J. Yates late in the first half and threw a go-ahead 8-yard TD pass to Jaelen Strong with 10:36 to play as Houston won at Indianapolis for the first time in 14 tries.
The Texans (7-7) took sole possession of the AFC South lead by snapping a two-game losing streak.
The Colts (6-8) have lost three straight and need help to make the playoffs.
The battle of backup quarterbacks didn’t earn style points. Yates was 6 of 10 for 68 yards with one interception before hurting his left knee. Weeden went 11 of 18 for 105 yards, leading the Texans to three field goals and the decisive TD.
Hasselbeck was 17 of 30 for 147 yards and one interception and briefly gave way to Charlie Whitehurst in the fourth.
(At) New England 33, Tennessee 16: Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns to help New England hold onto the top spot in the AFC in a game that saw Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota knocked out of the game with a knee injury in the first half.
The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, Mariota left and did not return after being sacked to end consecutive second-quarter drives.
Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 267 yards.
Delanie Walker caught two passes, both for touchdowns, for 64 yards for Tennessee. Zach Mettenberger completed 20 of 28 passes for 242 yards, two TDs and two interceptions after replacing Mariota.
Atlanta 23, (at) Jacksonville 17: Julio Jones scored for the first time in seven weeks, and Atlanta ended a six-game losing streak.
Jones finished with nine receptions for 118 yards and set the franchise record for catches in a season. He has 118, breaking teammate Roddy White’s mark of 115 set in 2010.
The Falcons (7-7) had lost six straight and even had some wondering whether they had given up after losing 38-0 last week at Carolina.
The Jaguars (5-9) lost ground in the muddled AFC South and were all but eliminated in the division race.