Pittsburgh — Ben Roethlisberger didn’t want to use the word “crossroads.” He did anyway.
His team mired in a three-game losing streak and with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the other sideline Sunday — a sight that typically signals doom for Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers — the longtime quarterback understood his team’s enigmatic season had reached a tipping point.
“Are we going to step up and play? Are we going to divide each other? Who knows?” Roethlisberger said after a taut 17-10 victory. “This was going to be a great challenge for us against a team that is always one of the best. I thought we answered the bell today.”
In so many ways.
Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels ran for a season-high 142 yards in his second NFL start. The defense that looked so vulnerable in the late going during Pittsburgh’s recent slide figured out a way to slow Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Embattled kicker Chris Boswell drilled a critical 48-yard field goal in the final minutes, and the Steelers (8-5-1) gave their playoff hopes a welcome jolt.
“I knew it was a big game, it was a redemption game for last year,” said Samuels, a senior at North Carolina State last fall when Pittsburgh collapsed late in a loss to the Patriots. “I just wanted to go out there and give them my all.”
Forced into action with James Conner missing his second straight game due to a sprained left ankle, Samuels said he’s never been a feature back. Funny, the fifth-round pick considered a bit of a project certainly looked like one against New England (9-5). Samuels ran 19 times and caught two passes for 30 yards, including a leaping 20-yard grab on third-and-9 on Pittsburgh’s penultimate possession that helped set up Boswell’s field goal.
“I was just staying relaxed, didn’t want to stay too tensed up,” Samuels said. “Just do what I do. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game … it was a pretty good outcome.”
One that helped Pittsburgh preserve its half-game lead over Baltimore (8-6) in the AFC North with two weeks to go. It also exorcised some demons. The Steelers had dropped five straight to New England and only beaten Brady twice in his storied career. Despite never trailing, their third win over him wasn’t assured until Morgan Burnett knocked down Brady’s heave to the end zone intended for Julian Edelman with 20 seconds to go.
“It’s a big win for us,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s that time of year. We need to win this football game.”
Roethlisberger threw for 235 yards with two first-half touchdowns and two interceptions. Boswell, who has struggled so badly this season the team held open tryouts during the week in search of a possible replacement, atoned for a 32-yard miss in the third quarter by drilling a 48-yarder with 2:30 remaining that provided the final margin.
“He’s our kicker from start to finish and I liked that way he came back and banged that next opportunity, and that’s what this thing is about,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You are going to be tested, we are going to be tested. Sometimes you are going to fail, but you better pass enough of them.”
Philadelphia 30, (at) L.A. Rams 23: Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles hope they’re about to make another late-season run that begins with another big road win over the Rams.
Foles took over for Carson Wentz and passed for 270 yards, and Wendell Smallwood rushed for two touchdowns in the Eagles’ victory over Los Angeles.
Rookie Josh Adams also rushed for a score as the Eagles (7-7) kept their playoff hopes alive with a gritty victory over the Rams (11-3), who lost consecutive regular-season games for the first time in coach Sean McVay’s tenure.
The Eagles scored 17 consecutive points in the third quarter and then survived the Rams’ late rally. They got help from Los Angeles returner JoJo Natson, who fumbled a punt return that D.J. Alexander recovered with 2:51 to play.
After Philadelphia’s Jake Elliott missed a field goal with 1:08 left, Jared Goff got the Rams to the Philadelphia 18 with 4 seconds to play — but he couldn’t connect with Josh Reynolds on a pass to the goal line as time expired.
(At) Indianapolis 23, Dallas 0: Marlon Mack rushed for a career-high 139 yards and two scores and the Colts shut out one of the league’s hottest offenses. The Colts (8-6) stayed in the AFC playoff hunt with their seventh win in eight games and their first shutout since a 27-0 victory over Cincinnati on Oct. 19, 2014.
Dallas (8-6) failed to clinch the NFC East as its five-game winning streak ended.
Mack starred in Sunday’s big show. He set the tone by running through a tackle for a 19-yard gain on his first carry, wound up carrying 22 times and matching a career high with the two scoring runs — all against the league’s No. 3 rushing defense.
It marked the first time since Week 9 that Dallas allowed a team to top the 100-yard mark, and the Cowboys were shut out for the first time in more than 15 years. New England was the previous team to achieve the feat with a 12-0 victory on Nov. 16, 2003.
(At) San Francisco 26, Seattle 23 (OT): Robbie Gould kicked a 36-yard field goal with 3:06 left in overtime and the 49ers snapped a 10-game losing streak against Seattle.
Nick Mullens threw for 275 yards and a touchdown to help the 49ers (4-10) win consecutive games for the first time this season. Richie James Jr. returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown and Gould kicked four field goals to give San Francisco its first win in the rivalry since 2013, when Jim Harbaugh was still coach.
The Seahawks (8-6) had their four-game winning streak snapped and missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth. Russell Wilson threw for 237 yards with two TD passes to Doug Baldwin and Chris Carson ran for 119 yards and a score for Seattle. But Wilson was unable to generate any points on his final three drives.
Tennessee 17, (at) N.Y. Giants 0: Bruising halfback Derrick Henry had his second straight big game with a career-high 33 carries for 170 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Henry, who had a franchise-record 238 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Jacksonville on Dec. 6, scored on 1-yard runs in the first and third quarters.
That was all the Titans’ defense needed on a wet and rainy day at MetLife Stadium as it shut down Saquon Barkley (31 yards on 14 carries) in helping Tennessee win its third straight game, matching its season high.
(At) Baltimore 20, Tampa Bay 12: Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson picked apart the Tampa Bay defense on a soggy field, running for 95 yards and throwing for 131.
Jackson directed two drives that lasted more than seven minutes, carried 18 times and completed 14 of 23 passes, one of them for a touchdown.
Baltimore (8-6) is 4-1 since Jackson took over for the injured Joe Flacco, the only loss in overtime at Kansas City. Jackson has rushed for 427 yards in those five games.
Tampa Bay (5-9) simply couldn’t find a way to stop Jackson and the running game, which amassed 242 yards on 49 attempts. Baltimore is the first team since the 1976 Steelers to rush for at least 190 yards in five straight games, according to the Ravens.
Washington 16, (at) Jacksonville 13: Josh Johnson’s first NFL start in more than seven years ended with a victory, snapping Washington's four-game losing streak and keeping them on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture.
Johnson and Adrian Peterson drove Washington (7-7) into field-goal range in the closing minutes, and Dustin Hopkins made a 36-yarder on the final play to win it.
Washington had lost every game since quarterback Alex Smith sustained a season-ending leg injury.
The Jaguars (4-11) have dropped nine of 10, raising more questions about the future of coach Doug Marrone, decision-maker Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell.
(At) Atlanta 40, Arizona 14: Julio Jones made an acrobatic touchdown catch and Deion Jones returned an interception for an early score as the Falcons snapped a five-game losing streak.
The Falcons (5-9) forced three turnovers and sacked Arizona’s Josh Rosen seven times, a single-game season high for both teams. Arizona (3-11) has dropped two straight and five of six under first-year coach Steve Wilks.
Julio Jones caught six passes for 82 yards, all in the first half. His 22-yard score in the closing seconds before intermission put the Falcons up 26-7. Jones beat Patrick Peterson’s bump-and-run coverage down the left sideline, turning the cornerback around and twisting around him to make a diving catch.
(At) Cincinnati 30, Oakland 16: Joe Mixon had another big game, rushing for 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Bengals ended one of their longest losing streaks under coach Marvin Lewis.
The Bengals (6-8) had dropped five straight — their third-worst slump during Lewis’ 16 seasons — before finding a team struggling as much as them. Mixon’s 15-yard touchdown with 4:04 left clinched the Bengals’ first win since October and capped his second straight 100-yard game.
The Raiders (3-11) are already in next-year mode. They fired general manager Reggie McKenzie on Monday and had little on the line against the Bengals.