It meant nothing, at least not in the context of what we have come to identify as meaningful in the context of professional team sports. No trophies were won, no postseason was clinched, no hated rival was vanquished.
It meant everything, and if that's something you can neither understand nor comprehend, just allow the image of Cam Heyward to serve as the 1,000 words that explains it. Following James Pierre's game-clinching interception in the end zone with 11 seconds left on the clock, Heyward was the picture of absolute exhaustion. On one knee, helmet off, face blank, apparently oblivious to his teammates' celebration, unable or unwilling even to stand, let alone participate, nothing left to give to the effort.
On Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos, and there was nothing about how it happened that was more significant than it did happen. While the participants often will sing the song of a "great team win" on such occasions, this time it was not lip service. The sincerity was real, just as was the sense of relief among the players, but also among the 59,841 inside the building and even throughout the city.
"Just to get a win. That's all that matters," said Ben Roethlisberger in response to a question about the meaning of the previous three-plus hours. "No disrespect to your question, but that's all that matters, winning the football game. We didn't care if it was pretty, ugly. We just wanted to win the game, and we did that, and it took all of us and it took the whole game."
It literally did take the whole game, and because of that it was a good thing the Steelers got off to a good start offensively for the second week in a row. Their game-opening touchdown drive was one of the few highlights in that 27-17 loss in Green Bay on Oct. 3, but when they duplicated that against the Broncos on Sunday it started to seem as though it was more than a simple aberration. The opening drive in Lambeau Field had ended with a 45-yard hookup between Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson for a touchdown, and on Sunday at Heinz Field the distance was 50 yards but otherwise the play seemed very much the same. Eighty-five yards in six plays, and the Steelers had a 7-0 lead before the game was three minutes old.
Speaking of the loss to the Packers, one of the opinions put forth in the aftermath was that the offensive line was showing improvement, that the running game was "getting close." After watching that unit, and the running attack, floundering around through the season's first four games, well, with the Broncos bringing a defense to Pittsburgh that was ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and sixth in average yards per carry allowed, it seemed like it was past time for a little "show me."
To their credit, that's what the Steelers did. The Broncos defense was allowing an average of 70 yards rushing per game, and the Steelers finished with 147; that unit was allowing an average of 3.5 yards per attempt, and the Steelers managed 4.2. And virtually none of that was the result of trick plays, reverses, or anything more than the linemen coming off the ball and Roethlisberger handing it to Najee Harris, who carried it 23 times for 122 yards (5.3 average).
And as the improbability of that was sinking in, the pass protection was shutting Von Miller out. In the game Roethlisberger was sacked just once and hit just twice more, but Miller, who walked onto the floor of Heinz Field with 4.5 sacks in four previous games this season and 110.5 in 139 career games didn't get a sniff. He had no sacks, no pressures, no hits on the quarterback, and also wasn't a factor vs. the running game either with only two assists on tackles to account for his presence on the field.
With the running game working and with the pass protection keeping Miller under control, Roethlisberger wasn't relegated to dink-and-dunk throughout the game. In addition to that 50-yard touchdown pass to Johnson on the game's opening possession, he had a 59-yard hookup with Chase Claypool. Of his 15 completions, seven went for gains of longer that 15 yards, and there wasn't a duck in the bunch. Roethlisberger's 10.1 average yards per attempt would have represented a career high if he maintained it over the course of an entire season, and on third downs he completed 8-of-11 for 118 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 147.0.
The offense was efficient and productive, and on this particular afternoon it was the unit that carried the defense. In the first half, the Steelers defense had made the Broncos settle for red zone field goals on a couple of occasions, but in the second half the pressure on Teddy Bridgewater evaporated and he completed 18-of-27 (67 percent) for 232 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 102.7.
In the second half, the Broncos put together touchdown drives of 88 and 72 yards, punted only once, and drove another 72 yards before James Pierre's interception in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining iced the 27-19 outcome.
When asked whether the game would quiet some of the criticism the Steelers had been hearing since the opening win over Buffalo, Roethlisberger said, "Probably not. But we won the game. That's all that matters truthfully."
The coaching staff will be able to find plenty of teachable moments once they complete the job of combing through the video of the game, and there were a couple of more injuries added to the list – Devin Bush with a groin injury, and JuJu Smith-Schuster with a shoulder injury.
But today and for the rest of this week, the Steelers will wake up as winners of a regular season game for the first time in a month. Because the Browns lost to the Chargers and the Bengals lost to the Packers, the Steelers also know they gained ground on at least half of their competition in the AFC North.
It's not time to start researching playoff tiebreakers, but it also has to be nice not being told of where their draft positioning would be if the season had ended on Sunday. The players will be reminded of the individual improvement that still needs to take place as they prepare for the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday night, and that a three-game losing streak doesn't get erased unless the ensuing winning streak is more than one in a row.
"Time will tell the story," said Coach Mike Tomlin when asked whether Steelers 27, Broncos 19 represents a corner the team has turned as it heads into the final two-thirds of its regular season schedule. "We are appreciative of the efforts and the win we got today. But those type of perspectives and things of that nature will be revealed to us as we continue to play."
This was just a win, but that's OK. That's all it needed to be.