The Pittsburgh Steelers came to play on Monday and the upstart Washington Football Team was up to the challenge. Washington rallied from 14 points down, led by its defense and a big day from Alex Smith to hand the Steelers their first loss of the season, 23-17.
1) Take a bow, Alex Smith. Steelers fans can throw their arms in the air in disgust over Smith's savvy move to leave the field with the ball in his hand, necessitating the location of and a switch to a kicking ball -- which paused the action and essentially bought Washington (5-7) a fourth timeout -- but this game was about more than a half-ending field goal. Smith caught fire in the second half, throwing for 174 of his 296 yards in the final two quarters and completing 16 of 24 second-half attempts to help Washington on a furious 13-point fourth-quarter rally to end the undefeated dreams of the Steelers (11-1). Smith did so by staying calm under pressure, completing 50% of his 10 attempts under duress and avoiding any massive mistakes while trying to lead his Washington Football Team back from a 14-point deficit. He took what Pittsburgh's defense gave him, which included a healthy helping of swing passes to J.D. McKissic and a perfectly placed deep shot down the sideline to Cam Sims, who made a spectacular one-handed grab to earn Washington a new set of downs en route to its go-ahead field goal. When it came time to go for the win, Smith's experience and composure proved to be the difference for a Washington team that hasn't scored a win with this kind of emphasis in some time.
2) We can again point to the scheduling irregularity as a legitimate reason for this outcome, but after two ugly outings at home in strange time slots, these Steelers seemed due to lose. The fashion in which they fell was surprising, but the Wednesday night slop fest against the Ravens was merely a precursor to what continued into Monday night. Pittsburgh converted just six of 15 third-down attempts, rushed for a grand total of 21 yards and didn't have enough confidence in its replacement kicker to try a field goal in a tie game, handing the ball over on downs to Washington with enough time to lead a go-ahead drive. The Football Team did just that, then capitalized on the Steelers' pass-heavy offense when former first-round pick Montez Sweat used his long arms to deflect Ben Roethlisberger's pass into the air, leaving it hanging for Jon Bostic to intercept. After weeks -- months, even -- of 50/50 chances going Pittsburgh's way in close victories, the pendulum finally swung in the opposite direction, sending the Steelers to their first loss. And frankly, this one was a long time coming. We can hear Mercury Morris clinking champagne flutes from here.
3) Have we seen a presumptive No. 1 seed with this much uncertainty and -- dare I say it -- doubt? Pittsburgh has virtually no rushing attack when James Conner isn't available, and the aforementioned rushing total proved it Monday night. The Steelers have joined the Chiefs as the top two AFC teams that are absolutely frightened by short-yardage scenarios, as evidenced by a crucial fourth-and-one decision to go for it. Pittsburgh inexplicably motioned its running back out of a shotgun set with two tight ends and an eligible tackle in line, only to throw an ill-fated fade to said running back, Anthony McFarland. The result predictably did not go in the Steelers' favor and raises what we've seen as a concerning point for weeks: The Steelers cannot run the ball with the likes of true contenders of the past. That's not to say Pittsburgh isn't a true contender, because its record still says it is. The Steelers' defense remains a beast, though another injury to its linebacking corps -- this time, to Devin Bush replacement Robert Spillane -- is leaving the position group thin entering the season's final four weeks, creating a possible weakness on a defense that previously didn't exhibit one. A weakened Steelers defense makes this team a less daunting opponent, especially when an opposing defense can count on Roethlisberger to throw the ball at least 30 times a game (he's finished under that mark just once, in a blowout win over Cleveland in Week 5), and more like 40 times a game if the last month has proven anything. There's legitimate cause for concern for the Steelers, not because they aren't good, but because they aren't proving they're No. 1-seed and conference-favorite good. Randy Fichtner needs to figure out where the kinks are in his offense and get them fixed before it starts to cause a backup in Pittsburgh's line.
4) A big reason for those kinks? Steelers pass-catchers aren't doing Roethlisberger any favors. The Steelers recorded at least six drops for the second straight outing, with Eric Ebron taking up the mantle owned by Diontae Johnson in Week 12. When facing a team with a legitimate pass rush like Washington's, it is paramount for a quarterback to get the ball out quickly, and to be able to count on the players targeted to haul in passes for positive gains. Too often, Steelers pass-catchers left those opportunities on the field, much like they did against Baltimore. This time, it burned them.
5) This strange year of 2020 might not end up being the one for Washington, but it's easy to see the makings of a team that could take a big step next season. Washington has a veteran quarterback clearly capable of keeping it competitive, and a handful of talented weapons starting with Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson. Washington missed the latter on Monday night, which was reflected by its paltry 45 rushing yards and four-of-17 third-down conversion rate, but that same veteran quarterback worked with what he had to lead an impressive comeback and down the team that previously owned the best record in the AFC. Sims had a bit of a breakout night, catching five passes for 92 yards and picking up crucial yards after catch on Washington's first scoring drive. McKissic proved to be a reliable option out of the backfield, gaining important yardage on such receptions to keep the drive moving for the Football Team. And when called upon, Dustin Hopkins was money, making all three of his field goal attempts to push Washington over the top. Washington is a team that needs to add talent at the skill positions in the offseason and hope for some season-long continuity along the offensive line, but things aren't nearly as dire as they seem. The team's defense is stout and plays with an attitude, which kept it in this low-scoring affair and should travel well for the rest of this season and into the next. The NFC East's sad state and this crucial victory are keeping its playoff chances alive, and there's reason for optimism going into the new year. Ron Rivera's culture shift might finally be taking hold, as reported by our own Aditi Kinkhabwala:
All of this is good news for a franchise looking to turn over a new leaf -- first, with a name change, a replacement on the sideline and in the front office, and finally, a surprise resurgence at quarterback. We're not saying this team is winning it all, because it most likely isn't -- but it's a far cry from where it was just a season ago.
-- Nick Shook
Josh Allen was brilliant on Monday night and the San Francisco 49ers had no answers for the Buffalo Bills' dynamic quarterback. Allen racked up four touchdown passes and propelled the AFC East-leading Bills past the 49ers, 34-24.
1) Josh Allen remains a one-man adventure. His long arm and fleet feet have carried him to statistical splendor and the Bills to victories in 2020. His head-scratching decisions and stumbles have also popped up in the midst of his finest season yet. On Monday, the best and brightest version of Allen shined against a formidable 49ers defense. Allen was sterling on this evening, chucking it and chucking it with his rifle of a right arm producing 375 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions as he completed 32 of his 40 passes (80%) with a 139.1 rating. Perhaps most impressive was the Bills offense leaned so heavily on the passing game and Allen still carved up a usually solid San Francisco defense. Allen's had no shortage of big games this season, but his accuracy and poise were of particular sparkle. On a night such as this, Allen looks as good at QB as just about anybody else. The true test as the season goes and seasons go by is his consistency. For now, though, the latest showcase game for the former first-round pick was a phenomenal one that has the Bills at 9-3 and alone atop the AFC East.
2) Here and there, Brandon Aiyuk (five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown), Deebo Samuel (six catches for 73 yards) and Raheem Mostert (42 yards rushing on nine carries) had promising plays. The 49ers are healthier than they've been for much of the season. Still, despite Kyle Shanahan's best efforts to keep this team going, it's likely this was finally it for any hopes of San Francisco (5-7) returning to the playoffs a season after it was the champion of the NFC. It would've been a safe bet prior to Monday, but it's arduous to write off a Shanahan-coached squad in 2020. Now, though, it's hard to imagine any other fate than a return home to the offseason following Week 17. Currently the 11th seed in the NFC, the 49ers have been plagued by significant injuries from the preseason through Monday. Maybe Jimmy Garoppolo and/or George Kittle will return in 2020, but maybe not. Along with injuries, Monday was the team's first "home" game in Arizona, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Santa Clara County forced the 49ers into becoming nomads. Hardships are a part of every NFL season for every NFL team. But it would seem there have just been too many for the Niners to overcome.
3) As Monday night's game ended quietly as most lopsided contests do, a look back at how it began shows things might well have played out differently had the Bills defense been less resilient. There are few scenarios imaginable that could pose as larger emotional shifts than the Bills defense underwent in a two-play span. Following a huge fourth-down stop to conclude a 13-play, 97-yard drive (97 yards!) on a Tremaine Edmunds tackle of Jeff Wilson, Buffalo rookie running back Zack Moss gave the ball right back on the ensuing play via fumble. Three plays later, Nick Mullens found Aiyuk for the game's initial score. But the Bills defense, maligned for much of the campaign due to its significant drop-off from seasons past, bounced back nicely and held the 49ers out of the end zone until the waning seconds of the third quarter. This wasn't a dominant, shutdown operation, as the Bills more so bent, but rarely broke. They made things happen, chiefly interceptions from Micah Hyde and Tre'Davious White. This season has largely been the opposite of the last with the Allen-led offense carrying the show while the defense has been problematic. If the Bills defense can respond -- as it did on Monday -- with revamped play, Buffalo could be a player in the postseason.
4) There was no John Brown and Stefon Diggs had a bit of a slow start, but Cole Beasley keeps on producing for the Bills. Beasley hauled in a five-yard game-tying score in the second quarter. At halftime's end, Beasley had already passed 100 yards, having caught seven balls on seven targets for 113 yards. Evaluated for a concussion early on, Beasley had his head on straight as his production keyed a 17-point run to bestow the Bills with a 17-7 halftime advantage. While the Bills' little big man had a huge opening half, Allen got just about everyone involved thereafter, as his touchdowns went to a different receiver every time. Diggs had a 92-yard night in which he surpassed 1,000 yards for the third straight season. Nonetheless, with Brown out and Diggs always commanding attention, Beasley's big start -- he ended the game with nine catches for 130 yards -- was a huge boost and has been much of the season. Much like Diggs, Beasley has blossomed since joining Buffalo.
5) We should all be as fortunate in our employment as Bills punter Corey Bojorquez. Entering Monday, the Bills had punted the ball a league-low 28 times. Make that 29. No doubt possessing a rested leg, Bojorquez' first and final punt didn't come until late in the fourth quarter on Buffalo's second-to-last drive and he promptly orbited it 68 yards. While another quiet outing for Bojorquez amplifies the Bills' offensive success along with its aggressive approach, it likewise shined a light on a night of tribulations for the Niners defense. Heading into Monday night as the No. 6 total defense, the 49ers simply found no answer for an unbalanced Bills offense. The 49ers couldn't come up with stops after the opening quarter. Holding Buffalo to a turnover on downs and then forcing the Moss fumble, the Niners unraveled thereafter when the Bills scored on their next six drives. They just had no answers for Allen's onslaught.
-- Grant Gordon