It started as a lackluster affair, but the Steelers-Chargers Monday night game turned into a thrilling one in the fourth quarter, with Le'Veon Bell's last-second touchdown winning it for Pittsburgh.
Not every NFL game is a gem (heck, this one was kind of a mess for a while), but the league sure knows how to produce drama.
After three rather sluggish quarters, the Chargers and Steelers delivered a frantic, back-and-forth final quarter that came down to one play. Pittsburgh, trailing by three with five seconds left, opted to go for the end zone from San Diego's 1.
Le'Veon Bell came through ... barely. The Chargers stood up Bell initially, but Pittsburgh's back managed to bounce off the pile and extend the football into the end zone, just before his knee hit the ground.
Touchdown. Ballgame. And the Steelers' 24-20 victory could loom large for the rest of the season. Three thoughts:
1. This felt like close to an elimination game
Plenty of teams throughout NFL history have bounced back from 2-3 starts to make the postseason, but it's worth noting that not one of last season's playoff qualifiers sat below .500 at this point in 2014.
With their loss Monday night, the Chargers now find themselves with two wins, three games back in the AFC West. They're also looking up at the 3-2 Steelers, who will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker on them all year. Those elements make the road to the playoffs awfully bumpy, even with 11 games left on the schedule.
For reasons we are about to get into here, neither of these teams really feel like they're on the verge of ripping off four of five wins in a row either. On a short week, the Chargers have to travel to Lambeau Field for a showdown with the Packers next Sunday; the Steelers draw NFC West frontrunner Arizona, in Pittsburgh. Those matchups made Monday night all the more critical—Pittsburgh and San Diego each figure to be underdogs in Week 6.
The intensity of the final 15 minutes spoke to this game's importance. Let's be honest: It was ugly for three quarters, with neither offense able to establish anything for very long. The fourth, though, was mesmerizing.
San Diego took the lead on Philip Rivers's second TD pass of the day to Antonio Gates in Gates's first game back from suspension. Pittsburgh answered on a Michael Vick-to-Markus Wheaton 72-yard bomb. And the Chargers came back again, as rookie Josh Lambo drilled a long field goal for a 20-17 lead.
All of that set up Pittsburgh's final drive, which started 18 seconds later than it should have because of an egregious clock error that went unnoticed on the field.
Vick completed several key passes on the drive—two to Darrius Heyward-Bey and one to Heath Miller, the the latter moving Pittsburgh to the edge of the goal line. Vick also ripped off a 24-yard scramble, which gave his team a chance at the end zone in the first place.
San Diego should, and will, be gutted by the ending. A prime-time home game against a backup quarterback cannot get away.
But it did. Because of the result, the Steelers again can set their sights on a playoff push, while the Chargers have to pick up the pieces.
2. What a turn of events for Vick
How bad were things for Vick at one point during his second Pittsburgh start? Bad enough that ESPN's Jon Gruden offered this analysis:
“If I'm Mike Tomlin, I might think about [replacing Vick with] Landry Jones.”
Indeed, the Pittsburgh passing game was almost nonexistent for three quarters. It seemed obvious by the Steelers' play calling that offensive coordinator Todd Haley had little to no confidence in Vick's ability to avoid a crushing turnover. When Vick actually did throw, he flirted with disaster several times, narrowly avoiding multiple interceptions.
After Gates handed San Diego a lead with 8:02 left, though, the Steelers had no choice but to open it up. Haley did so on the very next play, rolling Vick left and giving him a shot at Wheaton downfield.
The Chargers had been daring Vick to beat them deep all night, using aggressive press coverage at the line and often walking their safeties up to keep an eye on Bell. Vick still took very few shots before dropping in a perfect pass to Wheaton, who had broken loose from Brandon Flowers.
The game's final drive was even more impressive. Vick made excellent decisions, highlighted by his scramble and the subsequent dart to Miller.
While the Steelers still face an uphill battle if Ben Roethlisberger must sit another few weeks, Vick's clutch showing could change the game plan for the better moving forward.
3. The Chargers' offensive line is in shambles ... again
By the fourth quarter San Diego's offensive line, left to right, read as Joe Barksdale, J.D. Walton, Trevor Robinson, D.J. Fluker and Kenny Wiggins. That's a patchwork line if there ever was one, with only Fluker and, to a lesser extent, Robinson in where the Chargers ideally would have him.
Rivers still somehow managed to complete 35 of 48 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He did, however, throw a costly pick-six. WR Malcom Floyd was at least partly to blame because he rounded off his route. Rivers also lost a potential TD on San Diego's final drive when pass to a streaking Keenan Allen was swatted at the line.
Still, the QB deserves far more pats on the back than criticism for his play. On numerous occasions Monday night, the Chargers asked him to throw while backed up against his own goal line. He did so, completing several quick passes with defenders in his face.
The Chargers will need much more of that from their QB this season, because the O-line issues likely will not be fixed without everyone returning healthy. Unfortunately for them, this continues to be a recurring theme, year in and year out.