Pittsburgh Steelers lose ground in AFC playoff hunt

Pittsburgh Steelers lose ground in AFC playoff hunt
Im just blessed, man: Shelby Harris caps emotional week with game-sealing interception
Edit Slot to 247Sports Home Slot to Pittsburgh Steelers Newsletter Newsletter The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to make the postseason. Even after a disappointing loss to the Denver Broncos, we can say that relatively safely. But what kind of pathway to the Super Bowl that awaits them once they get there is another matter entirely. Coming into Sunday, the Steelers were staring down a pretty favorable path. That changed with their loss to the Denver Broncos.

The obvious consequence of their loss is falling from the No. 2 seed in the AFC to the No. 4 seed at this moment. The Steelers had half of a game in the loss column over the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. Now, they trail both of those teams, as they all have three losses but the Steelers have a tie. In a vacuum, that wouldnt be the worst thing. It is, after all, highly unlikely that the Texans go into the playoffs on a 13-game winning streak, and the Steelers will have a chance to hand the Patriots a loss in Week 15. The damage that this loss does in context is that it might make that game meaningless.

Lets say the Steelers do beat the Patriots in December. The Patriots play three easy divisional games and have a home date with the Minnesota Vikings, who struggle against good teams. If they lose to the Steelers, theyll still likely go 12-3-1. The Steelers, on the other hand, are essentially out of easy games. They have a road trip to Oakland ahead of the Patriots game, but otherwise, they play three playoff locks in the Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and New Orleans Saints and one potential playoff team in the Cincinnati Bengals.

Best pick: Last week, I predicted the Seahawks would go out and beat the Packers by three and then the Seahawks went out and beat the Packers by three. At this point, Im starting to think that me picking Seahawks games isnt even fair anymore, at least thats what my bookie is telling me. This Seahawks streak is so out of hand that Im 95 percent sure Ive been banned from betting Seattle games in the state of New Jersey. I also might actually be banned from the state of New Jersey in general after that bachelor party I went to in September got out of hand, but thats a different story altogether. 

The path to the No. 2 seed never realistically involved winning out, but the beauty of the winning streak that the Steelers were on was that it gave them a cushion in the standings. If theyd beaten the Patriots before this Denver loss, they could have lost a week later in New Orleans without sacrificing their bye week. Now, they have to beat the Patriots as well as the Saints, Chargers and Bengals to ensure a better seed than New England. They can do nothing to slow down the Texans. If Houston wins out, they will have a better record than the Steelers.

And then theres the divisional race. The Baltimore Ravens won again today, bringing their record to 6-5. That has them only 1.5 games behind the Steelers at this point. They still have to play the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, but their other three games against the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all quite winnable. Suddenly, the AFC North looks to be in play. The Steelers would have the tiebreaker right now with fewer divisional losses, but the Ravens would have to tie a game down the stretch in order for a tiebreaker to become necessary. That isnt likely. The Steelers should still be viewed as heavy divisional favorites, but the Ravens could push them now.

The path to a bye was never going to be easy. Most of these scenarios depend on the Steelers defeating the Patriots, which is not a given as Pittsburgh fans know well. But the Steelers always had to take care of business against the lesser teams on their schedule. The Broncos were one of them. This was a very disappointing loss.

DENVER — The most important play of Sunday's game came from the man in the midst of the most important week of his life.

The only decision from last week that Im going to take full blame for is picking the Buccaneers over the Giants. The Buccaneers have a bad defense, half their team was injured and they have no idea who their quarterback is 11 weeks into the season, yet I still picked them to win on the road against the Giants. If I had a Harvard degree like Ryan Fitzpatrick, I definitely would have been smart enough not to pick the Bucs, but I dont, I have a degree from a diploma mill in Nicaragua.  

So you'll have to forgive Shelby Harris if his game-winning interception with a minute left on the clock is his second-favorite moment from the past few days, and it's not particularly close to the first.

By the way, hopefully, no ones drinking every time the Saints score this year, because that couldnt possibly be good for your health. The Saints lead the NFL with 37.8 points per game and that number doesnt appear to be going down anytime soon. The Saints have been especially impressive over the past three weeks, averaging 48 points per game. A big part of that is because of Drew Brees, whos thrown 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions over that span. 

Im not going to lie to you guys, [the interception is] not the biggest part of my week, he said. I had my baby girl on Friday. Its a blessing, man, all this at once. I could really burst into tears, man. Im just blessed.

If the NFLs plan this year was to get the drunkest possible crowd for a Thanksgiving game, then Im pretty sure theyre going to accomplish that. I mean, when you put a primetime game near Bourbon Street, theres a 100 percent chance that people will be drunk, and when that game is on Thanksgiving, well, lets just say there will probably be a lot of moms taking shots out of test tubes and then planting succulents. 

And that means the traditional celebration of his first career interception and a big win for his team is going to have to wait.

After this, I will drink some water, maybe a Gatorade, sit in the car, drive to the hospital and sit there the rest of the night, Harris said. There is no celebration. I am just happy to have a healthy baby, a healthy wife and a healthy family. The people I want to celebrate with — it made me almost cry. I looked in the stands, and my wife was not there. I know she is in the hospital with our daughter, so I cannot wait to go see them.

That much was clear in the moments after the interception, one of the biggest plays of Shelby Harris career.

The Vikings signed Cousins to win the big games that Case Keenum couldnt win last year and instead, hes doing the opposite. The Vikings have played three games this season against teams that currently have a winning record and theyre 0-3 in those games. If they wanted to be 0-3 against winning teams, Keenum could have done that, and he probably would have done it at half the price. 

The Steelers — trailing 24-17 with about two minutes remaining — drove to the Broncos 3-yard line. On first-and-goal, Chris Harris Jr. blanketed JuJu Smith-Schuster, forcing an incompletion. On second down, Steelers running back James Conner darted to his left toward the end zone, only to be forced back by Todd Davis and Shelby Harris, who burst over from the middle of the formation to make the stop.

In need of a spark, Roethlisberger and company took over at their own 25-yard line with 3:27 to play in the half. Four straight completions, two each to Smith-Schuster and McDonald, set the Steelers up at the Broncos 48-yard line at the two-minute warning. Roethlisberger connected with Ryan Switzer for 15 yards and went back to him for 24 yards to the Denver seven-yard line. Two short passes and an incompletion gave the Steelers a fourth-and-two from the two-yard line, bringing on Boswell for his third field goal attempt of the game. The Steelers went into their bag of tricks, with Boswell faking it and throwing a two-yard touchdown pass to Alejandro Villanueva on the final play of the half, sending them into the locker room tied, 10-10, with momentum on their side.

While still being blocked by Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, Harris alertly jumped up, getting his hands on a pass intended for Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

The Steelers came out throwing on their first possession, with no rushing attempts, and were moving the ball. Roethlisberger hit Brown, who turned it into a 14-yard gain. Vance McDonald added a nine-yard gain, and Roethlisberger stuck with it and found Smith-Schuster for 10 yards. James Conner took the screen pass for seven yards, and on third and three, Jaylen Samuels shook off a tackle for a 12-yard gain on the catch and run. The Steelers tried a little trickery, with Brown throwing it, but he couldnt connect with Samuels. The drive stalled there. Two more incompletions brought on Boswell, but his 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Justin Simmons, and the Steelers came up empty.

Ive been telling people all year Ive got hands, and they dont believe me, said Harris with a laugh. So I had to go out there and show them a little bit.

Disappointing. But youve got to give Denver credit, said Coach Mike Tomlin. They had a winning performance. We did not. We accept responsibility for that. It was the turnover ratio. We didnt do a good enough job of taking care of the ball. We also didnt do a good enough job of getting the football. Youve got to look at it from that perspective. Its dual responsibility. We didnt take care of the ball well enough. We didnt balance that out by getting the ball. When you are minus whatever we were in the game, its going to be tough to win. Weve got some work to do, well do it. Well absorb this and what comes with this and get back to work tomorrow.

As he sheepishly admitted, though, he might not have gotten the opportunity to show off his hands without a little luck.

And that momentum did carry over. On their second possession of the second half the Steelers started out buried at their own three-yard line. It didnt take long to get out of dodge. Roethlisberger, under heavy pressure, heaved it from his own end zone to Smith-Schuster who caught it at the 33-yard line, and then was off to the races. Aided by his own stiff arm and a block by Brown, he took it the distance for a 97-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers their first lead of the day, 17-10. The touchdown was the second 97-yard touchdown of his career, the first was last season against Detroit.

I actually did not do what I was supposed to do, but it ended up working out pretty well, Harris said. During the play, honestly, I did not know what [Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger] was trying to do. It was supposed to be a run, and he decided to pull it and just throw it. Honestly, I saw it floating up there and just caught it. I [thought about] trying to return it, but no, I am a little too tired for that, so I dropped to the ground and then just laid there.

Another scoring opportunity slipped right out their hands on the next drive. The offense was moving the ball, this time mixing it up with Roethlisberger with five completions and Conner with five carries for 16 yards. On third-and-one, Roethlisberger hit a wide-open Xavier Grimble for 23 yards. Grimble was hit at the one-yard line by Will Parks, forcing a fumble that went out of the end zone for a touchback.

It was a well-deserved rest for a man who has been in and out of the hospital caring for his wife and daughter while also preparing for a crucial game. 

The Broncos would be the next one to come up with a big play. Chris Harris Jr. picked off Roethlisberger, on a pass intended for Brown, and returned it 14 yards to the Steelers 43-yard line. Keenum went straight for the kill, hitting Sanders for 38 yards to the five-yard line. Keenum went right back to Sanders for a five-yard touchdown, tying the game, 17-17.

And though Harris interception on third-and-goal proved to be the pivotal moment in the teams second straight win, it was hardly the only impact he had. Playing on a defensive line that rotates players often, he also added a half-sack — his first of the season — and three combined tackles, second-most among the Broncos defensive linemen.

Antonio Brown had nine receptions for 67 yards. Brown now has 804 career receptions, joining Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison as the only players in NFL history with at least 800 catches in their first nine years in the league. Brown also set an NFL record for fewest games (126) to reach 800 receptions.

For a man who was released by three different teams — and continued to work tirelessly through it all — before finding a home in Denver, it was undoubtedly a night to remember.

Im so proud of Shelby, man, just the way hes worked and hasnt complained, Chris Harris Jr. said. [Hes] just been making plays [on] whatever snaps he gets, no complaining. I just love his attitude man, and Im just thankful we have guys like him who are selfless and put in the work and still go out there and make plays.

The Steelers tied things up in the second quarter. Roethlisberger completed seven consecutive passes on the drive, but the offense was hampered by a pass interference call that they couldnt dig out of. Boswell was called upon again, and his 41-yard field goal tied things up, 3-3.

… Hes a guy that came out of nowhere, and people cut him and cut him, and he just kept fighting, man. … Salute to Shelby, man, [for] just continuing to work.

Another big defensive play by the Broncos gave them the ball back at the end of the third quarter. On the screen pass Conner was reversing field, and after a 23-yard gain was hit by Bradley Roby, forcing a fumble, that was recovered by Darian Stewart at the Broncos 23-yard line.

But if you ask Bradley Roby, perhaps there may have been a little more at work on the play than just Shelby Harris keen eyes, soft hands and determination. The play unfolded right in front of Roby, who was covering Brown on the play and may have been in position to bring in the interception if Harris hadnt gotten his hands on it. From Robys point of view, the defensive linemans first career interception might have been brought on by a higher power — perhaps a divine interception.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 41 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions were costly. One led to a Denver touchdown, and the other ended the Steelers comeback attempt when he was picked off in the end zone with 1:03 to play in the game.

Just God at work, Roby said. I dont think hes supposed to do that on that play, but something told him to do it, and I think it was God. [Roethlisberger] threw it right to him. [Roethlisberger] threw it short, and [Harris] caught it. … I was like, He just had a baby. This was meant for him.

As most players would after their first interception, Harris made sure to keep the football. Unlike most players, though, this ball wont be going in a trophy case. Instead, it will go somewhere that will bring more pride and joy than any on-field accomplishment could.

Im going to put it right next to the crib, said Harris, his voice strung with emotion, so she knows its for her.


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