Steelers 28, Colts 24: Steelers free Chase Claypool, spark comeback

Maybe the Steelers can win a playoff game after all.

Not only did they end their three-game losing streak Sunday with a 28-24 win over the Colts at Heinz Field, they did it with their most impressive victory since their Week 8 win at Baltimore.

Since then, the Steelers’ wins have come against the Cowboys, Bengals, Jaguars and a virus-ravaged Ravens team. The Colts (10-5) still have a shot at the playoffs and jumped out to a 24-7 lead in the third quarter Sunday before the Steelers (12-3) mounted their biggest second-half comeback in 25 years and clinched the AFC North and no worse than the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

That means the Steelers wouldn’t have to face the Chiefs any earlier than the AFC championship game. The Chiefs clinched the top seed with their win over the Falcons Sunday.

It also means the Steelers will have to win two playoff games to get to Arrowhead Stadium, and since the calendar turned to December the Steelers’ arrow had been pointing toward a one-and-done playoff fate.

It continued to look that way for the first 40 minutes of Sunday’s game.

Until Ben Roethlisberger found Chase Claypool.

For the Steelers to truly get past their late-season swoon and make any kind of playoff run, Claypool is going to have to be involved.

The rookie receiver posted a modest stat line Sunday. Four catches for 54 yards. But three of those catches and 53 of those yards came on what to that point was the Steelers’ longest drive of the game, a 10-play, 78-yard series that brought them to the Colts’ 1-yard line.

Once again, the Steelers couldn’t get a yard when they desperately needed it, failing to score four times. That included a dropped touchdown pass by Claypool.

Down 24-7 with five minutes left in the third quarter, the Steelers seemed destined to enter the playoffs a dead team walking, about to lose their fourth straight game after starting the season 11-0.

But while Claypool couldn’t catch a touchdown, he provided the field position to launch the comeback.

A defense that has thrown the offense a lifeline over and over again during this month-long slide did it one more time. Finally, the offense grabbed the rope and pulled itself from the icy depths.

After the Colts’ goal-line stand, Avery Williamson tackled Jonathan Taylor for a one-yard loss and the Colts eventually went three-and-out.

The Steelers took possession at the Indianapolis 39 after the Colts punted, and Roethlisberger promptly fired a 39-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson.

It was the first of three straight touchdown drives for the Steelers, all ending with Roethlisberger TD passes. The quarterback completed 34 of 49 passes for 342 yards Sunday, but only 11 of those completions came in the first half. Waking up in the second half after sleepwalking through the first half, as Roethlisberger has done each of the last two weeks, won’t get it done in the playoffs.

Whatever is wrong with the 38-year-old’s knees or any other aging body part, if his memory serves him well in the playoffs the Steelers will have a chance to make some noise. In other words, he needs to remember that Claypool is just the fourth rookie wide receiver to score 10 touchdowns in his first 10 games.

Claypool caught more than three passes for the first time since the Steelers’ last victory. He disappeared for much of the Steelers’ three-game losing streak as Johnson and Ebron kept dropping passes. Roethlisberger finally started throwing him the ball Sunday, and the tide turned.

After Johnson’s touchdown pulled the Steelers to within 24-14, a second straight Colts’ possession was wrecked by Williamson when he sacked Philip Rivers on the first play.

Eric Ebron caught a 5-yard TD pass to complete a penalty-aided drive and pull the Steelers to within 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, and then JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 25-yard pass from Roethlisberger to give the Steelers their 28-24 lead with 7:38 left in the game.

Smith-Schuster caught nine passes for 96 yards. He didn’t TikTok before the game, and the Steelers didn’t even have an original celebration ready to go after his go-ahead touchdown. Even after Mike Hilton intercepted a Rivers pass a minute and a half later, the defense eschewed the customary turnover group selfie.

The Steelers looked like a team too humbled by its losing streak to orchestrate any kind of dancing number.

Hilton gained more yards on one play than any Steelers offensive player in the first half when he picked up a T.J. Watt-forced fumble on a sack and ran it 14 yards to the Colts’ 3-yard line. That led to James Conner‘s 1-yard touchdown plunge and a 7-7 tie.

Watt had two sacks and Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward both had one to go with Williamson’s first sack as a Steeler, giving the Steelers five sacks in a game for the first time since Week 5. The defense certainly earned some kind of joyous demonstration after Hilton’s interception, but perhaps those guys knew their work wasn’t done because there was no way the Steelers would be able to churn out the clock by running the ball.

While the Steelers made history with their biggest second-half comeback since overcoming a 31-13 deficit and winning 49-31 at Cincinnati in 1995, they also made some dubious history with just 20 yards on 14 carries Sunday. It was their lowest rushing output since 2018 and only the second time since 1970 that they’ve run for 20 yards or less, according to Stathead.

And so, after Hilton’s interception with six minutes left in the game, Roethlisberger threw the ball seven times and handed it off just once. The Colts got the ball back before the two-minute warning and reached the Steelers’ 33 before Alex Highsmith, who showed pass-rushing promise in the game, pressured Rivers into a fourth-down incompletion with 1:14 left to guarantee that Heinz Field will host a playoff game in January.

The defense and Roethlisberger, as long as he doesn’t forget about Claypool, give the Steelers a shot at winning said playoff game.

That running game, though, could be a problem.

Sunday was the sixth time since Week 8 that the Steelers have run for 48 yards or less this season. In the postseason, teams failing to run for more than 48 yards in a game are 12-87, according to Stathead.

But it’s not like the Steelers will be the only flawed team in the playoffs.

The Chiefs needed Younghoe Koo to miss a field goal to avoid overtime against the 4-11 Falcons. They only managed 17 points against the league’s 28th-ranked defense.

The Browns made the Steelers’ Monday-night loss at Cincinnati a little more excusable by losing to the 2-13 Jets.

The Titans allowed 40 points in a blowout loss Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

The Dolphins are playing tag-team at quarterback.

The next playoff game Lamar Jackson wins will be his first.

The Bills? It’s hard to knock them right now. They’ve won four in a row and it could be five if they win at New England Monday night.

The Steelers could avoid a trip to Buffalo in a potential divisional-round game if they win at Cleveland next week and the Bills lose either at New England or at home against a Dolphins team that would be in the playoffs with a win.

In the AFC, getting to the Super Bowl most likely means beating Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen or both. Those guys figure to have a lot of shots at Super Bowl rings over the next decade or longer.

Does Roethlisberger have one more championship left in that arm? We’ll see. The Steelers showed Sunday they can beat the type of team they’ll face in the playoffs. They still have some work to do to point their arrow to Arrowhead.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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