Despite losing the turnover battle and surrendering three touchdown passes to Brett Hundley, the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) held on against the plucky Green Bay Packers (5-6), riding a last-second Chris Boswell 53-yard FG to a 31-28 victory, on Sunday Night Football in Week 12. Here's what we learned:
- This was supposed to be a walk. The AFC leaders with the greatest running back-wide receiver tandem in the league against a foundering foe without its starting quarterback, a team that had been shut out *at home *by a lesser AFC North opponent just one week ago. And yet, thanks to a brilliant evening from Brett Hundley, Le'Veon Bell and the night's hero, Antonio Brown, this midseason prime-time clash morphed into a classic.
After Hundley, who had been mocked and forgotten after a three-INT showing against the Ravens last week, led Green Bay on a 12-play, 77-yard game-tying drive right before the two-minute warning, the Steelers responded in kind three drives later. Pittsburgh's ferocious front seven stuffed Green Bay with a three-and-out in its own territory, forcing the Pack to punt with 17 seconds left. That's all Ben Roethlisberger needed.
On the first play, Roethlisberger launched his best toss of the night, a 23-yard dart to the left sideline, where Brown hauled it in with a deft Julio-esque toe-tap. Brown followed up that unbelievable catch with another, this one a 14-yard grab to get Pittsburgh in field-goal position. Chris Boswell redeemed his earlier extra point miss soon after, knocking in a Heinz Field-record 53-yarder as time expired to seal the victory.
- Even before the game-winning march, Brown was playing savior. The league's best wide receiver (period) hauled in two more touchdowns on Sunday night, making that five in two weeks for the Steelers' eminent pass-catcher. Brown toyed with whichever Packers cornerback was unfortunately lined up against him; on the final drive, Green Bay rookie Kevin King, who had been dealing with a shoulder injury, was the victim. Brown reeled in 10 balls on 12 targets for 169 yards on the evening, his second consecutive 10-catch game. But he wasn't the only Killer B to go off...
After Pittsburgh shot out of the gate in a pass-happy mood, only to remain locked with the Pack, the Steelers reverted to a tried-and-true strategy: Feed Le'Veon Bell. Behind Bell's best game since the bye, Pittsburgh crossed the century mark on the ground for the first time since Week 7, creating the needed balance to maintain long drives. Bell ran for 95 yards on 20 carries and led the team with 12 receptions, en route to tallying 183 total yards. The back played a vital role in the pass game for Roethlisberger, who was missing his second-favorite receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Those worried about Bell's durability will shiver at the back's 32 touches, but riding Bell is a poison pill the Steelers are ready and willing to swallow.
- This game wouldn't have even been a contest without Brett Hundley, who authored his best half of the season in the first two frames in the Steel City. The Packers' backup followed up a career-worst showing with a near-perfect passer rating in the first half, throwing two touchdowns and completing seven of nine attempts -- one of those scores came on a long Jamaal Williams screen, but the point remains. With a clean pocket, Hundley showed great touch and Rodgersian confidence on deep throws to Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. The house of cards collapsed in the second half as Pittsburgh broke through Green Bay's front line and the pressure increased -- his management of Green Bay's last drive, which included a clock-killing dump-off was amateur -- but Packers fans should be encouraged with their young QB's bounce-back performance.
- Hundley's breakout evening was due in part to multiple breakdowns in Pittsburgh's secondary throughout the night, one severely missing All-Pro corner Joe Haden. The Steelers defensive backs, namely Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh, were burned for three touchdown passes -- two bombs of 39 and 55 yards and one screen pass. In the three games since Haden broke his fibula, the Steelers have allowed five pass TDs of 50-plus yards.
But when the secondary faltered, Pittsburgh's rising front seven stepped up. Cameron Heyward (two sacks) and Stephon Tuitt (TFL) were disruptors in the second half. T.J. Watt teetered brilliantly between pass coverage and pass rush. Ryan Shazier was a force yet again, leading the team with eight tackles before leaving with an ankle injury -- his status will be something to monitor. The game turned when Pittsburgh sacked Hundley three times in two drives, forcing two straight three-and-outs and setting up Brown's second touchdown. The elite play of this Pittsburgh front seven will be the saving grace of this team if and when the Steelers face the hated Patriots in a championship rematch. That, and a healthy Haden.
- Martavis Watch! In filling in for JuJu, Bryant played well, tallying 40 yards on four catches and hauling in one pretty touchdown. Bryant's speed, on full display Sunday, always makes him a tantalizing target, but it was the possession guys -- Bell and Eli Rogers (seven targets) -- who scooped more of JuJu's targets and saw more love from Roethlisberger.
- The win keeps Pittsburgh atop the AFC, tied with New England at 9-2, as it heads into AFC North play, games at Cincinnati and home against Baltimore, before taking on the Patriots in Week 15. Green Bay's road to the postseason, meanwhile, has far too many potholes. The 5-6 Pack are now two games behind the wild-card spot and four games behind the NFC North-leading Vikings, with three games against playoff contenders left on their schedule. Hundley peaked too late.