Alex Smith, Washington hand Steelers 1st loss of season
Quarterback sat out 2019 season while recovering from life-threatening leg injury
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent three months shaking off whatever 2020 threw at them. Schedule changes. Injuries to a handful of impact players. The ever-present threat of COVID-19.
Through the chaos, they kept winning. Sometimes pretty. Sometimes ugly. Sometimes a little of both in the same game. Through it all, they insisted they were well aware of their flaws. pointing out time and again the only thing perfect about them was their record.
So much for that.
Pittsburgh's bid for an unbeaten season is over. Washington's — yes, Washington's — quest for an unlikely division title may just be starting.
Alex Smith threw for 296 yards and a touchdown, Dustin Hopkins kicked a tiebreaking 45-yard field goal with 2:04 remaining, and Washington rallied for a 23-17 victory on Monday in one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season.
"We've been down for such a long time and we're trying to rebuild ourselves and build up," first-year coach Ron Rivera said. "This is something we can build off of."
The Steelers (11-1) missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth and dropped into a tie with defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City for the best record in the AFC with four weeks remaining. They squandered a 14-point lead.
"It stinks," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Been a while since we lost a game. It's not a good feeling."
The Steelers were 10-point favourites while facing a team that hadn't won three straight since 2018 and hadn't won in Pittsburgh since 1991. Washington won the Super Bowl that season. The club's expectations this year are far more modest. Yet a day after the New York Giants won at Seattle, Washington (5-7) kept pace while giving the lowly NFC East its second marquee victory in 25ish hours.
"We're on a roll," said defensive end Montez Sweat, who knocked down three Roethlisberger passes. "This is the kind of football we've been wanting to play since Game 1."
What Alex Smith has done is unbelievable. <br><br>Comeback Player of the Year even before taking a snap.<br><br>But playing winning football after everything he’s been through is even more incredible.—@JJWatt
It's the kind of football the Steelers had played since Game 1. The best start in the franchise's 87-year history came to an abrupt halt on a rare Monday late afternoon game. The NFL pushed the contest back a day as part of the fallout from a COVID-19 outbreak in Baltimore that forced the league to postpone the Ravens' visit to Heinz Field three times.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin insisted his club would not use the disruption as an excuse. But the weight of what the Steelers have been dealing with, combined with second-half injuries to inside linebacker Robert Spillane and cornerback Joe Haden, made for a tough day.
Roethlisberger passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off by Jon Bostic — a former Steeler — with 1:59 remaining. Hopkins added another 45-yard field goal and Pittsburgh's last-gasp drive ended with the ball near midfield and Washington's players sprinting off in celebration while the Steelers trudged to the locker room.
"We're getting to that point of the season when you've got to be sharp in all areas, your whole team, both sides of the ball," Roethlisberger said. "There can be all kinds of distractions, changes of this, that and the other. At the end of the day, we've got to go play good football."
For the first time in a long time, the Steelers didn't. At least not enough of it.
Still, even after Smith hit Logan Thomas for a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 17, the Steelers had a chance. They drove into field goal range but rather than have fill-in Matthew Wright — promoted from the practice squad due to an injury to Chris Boswell — attempt a 45-yard field goal into the open end at Heinz, the Steelers went for it.
c̶o̶l̶l̶e̶g̶e̶ ̶q̶u̶a̶r̶t̶e̶r̶b̶a̶c̶k̶<br>NFL TIGHT END<a href="https://twitter.com/budlight?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@budlight</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BudLightCelly?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BudLightCelly</a> <a href="https://t.co/pYqzIWUHWT">pic.twitter.com/pYqzIWUHWT</a>—@WashingtonNFL
Roethlisberger's heave to rookie running back Anthony McFarland Jr. fell incomplete and Smith calmly drove Washington 45 yards in nine plays to set up the winning score.
"I didn't feel good about putting that [kick] on him," Tomlin said of Wright.
Smith's return from a right leg injury that nearly cost him his life has made him a lock for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. In the first half, Smith's left leg got some attention after he was stepped on.
Gotta give it to Alex Smith!!! What an accomplishment on the comeback year!—@Willie_Roaf
"You get stepped on a bunch as a quarterback, especially that front leg," Smith said. "You get used to it. You get numb to it. Looked down ... [you could] visually see the blood pumping out. Never had one gush like that. New for me."
Smith remained in the game, his bloody sock giving his nearly all-white uniform a splash of colour.
Allen powers Bills past 49ers
The passes zipped through the air one by one, almost always finding their intended target right on the hands and in stride.
By the time Josh Allen was done, the quarterback had finished one of the best games of his young NFL career, and the Buffalo Bills once again looked like one of the league's elite teams.
Allen threw for 375 yards and tied a career high with four touchdown passes as the Bills stayed in sole possession of first place in the AFC East with a thoroughly impressive 34-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
"That's our quarterback. He's a baller," Bills safety Jordan Poyer said. "I don't know what answer you want me to say. It's no surprise to us what he does every week. I'm happy he's on our team."
Buffalo (9-3) moved a step closer to winning its division for the first time since 1995 thanks to a nearly flawless performance from Allen. The 24-year-old completed 32 of 40 passes with no interceptions.
He threw touchdown passes to Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, Isaiah McKenzie and Gabriel Davis as the Bills built a 17-7 halftime lead and controlled the majority of the second half.
OKAY, <a href="https://twitter.com/_IsaiahMcKenzie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@_IsaiahMcKenzie</a>. 👀<br><br>📺 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BUFvsSF?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BUFvsSF</a>: <a href="https://t.co/yhpv11tWIF">https://t.co/yhpv11tWIF</a> <a href="https://t.co/FPkSOKkcWL">pic.twitter.com/FPkSOKkcWL</a>—@BuffaloBills
The Bills are one game ahead of the Miami Dolphins with four games left for both teams.
San Francisco (5-7) lost in its first game at its adopted home in Arizona. The 49ers will be based in Glendale for at least the next three weeks after Santa Clara County issued strict new coronavirus protocols that forced the team to find a temporary new home.
It was Allen's fourth game of the season with at least 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, which set a franchise record. Jim Kelly did it three times in 1991 and Drew Bledsoe three times in 2002.
"I think Josh loves the hype and he loves to show people the truth," Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said. "People always want to criticize, but Josh is one of those guys who's built for the big moments."
The <a href="https://twitter.com/BuffaloBills?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BuffaloBills</a> have won their first Monday Night Football game since Week 4 of the 1999 season.<br><br>Buffalo was the only franchise since the start of 2000 that had not won on Monday Night Football. <a href="https://t.co/rZxGOMucH6">pic.twitter.com/rZxGOMucH6</a>—@ESPNStatsInfo
San Francisco has had several recent injuries at its slot cornerback position and struggled to cover Beasley, who had a career-high 130 yards receiving on nine catches.
"We knew exactly what they were running. We just came up short," 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. "It was kind of a weird feeling."
State Farm Stadium — which is home to the division-rival Arizona Cardinals — was dressed up to make the 49ers feel slightly more at home. There were San Francisco banners hanging on the walls along the sidelines and the videoboard showed Niners highlights and flashed messages like "Faithful to the Bay."
The Bills opened the game with a 74-yard drive that was stopped at the Niners 1 after Allen's fourth-down pass fell incomplete. San Francisco responded with a 97-yard drive that ended at the Buffalo 2 when Jeff Wilson Jr. was stuffed for no gain on fourth down.
But San Francisco got the ball back one play later on a fumble by Allen and the 49ers took advantage. Nick Mullens hit Brandon Aiyuk in the middle of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown.
It was all Buffalo for the rest of the first half and much of the game. Allen hit Beasley for a 5-yard touchdown and later found tight end Knox for a 4-yard score as the Bills pushed ahead 17-7 by halftime.
Mullens finished 26-of-39 passing for 316 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.