Whew. At the end, that was the emotion. Relief, more than accomplishment. Lucky, rather than good. Gifted, rather than earned. Whew!
A completely natural response to the Steelers' 27-24 victory over the Titans on Sunday at Nissan Stadium, an expected reaction to a game that couldn't have been more different from the first half to the second. For the first 29 minutes, 46 seconds of this matchup pitting the last two undefeated teams in the AFC, the Steelers dominated every phase, every aspect, virtually every snap of the ball.
Then came a miscalculation on the final play of the first half that seemed to open the floodgates to a nail-biting, hair-pulling 29 minutes, 41 seconds of a second half that cast doubt on whether everything preceding it had even been real. Even now, hours after Stephen Gostkowski's potential game-tying, overtime-inducing 45-yard field goal sailed wide right of the uprights, there is a surreal quality to the whole afternoon.
The game began unlike any involving the Steelers for the previous 23, because in this one they scored a touchdown on the game's opening possession. Actually, they scored two touchdowns on the game's opening possession, but the first was nullified by a facemask penalty on Chuks Okorafor. But since this transpired during the opening 29 minutes, 46 seconds, the Steelers overcame that speed-bump and immediately crossed the goal line a second time for a touchdown that counted.
This was just the start, and from there the precision with which the Steelers operated left the impression it was a Hollywood script written to portray them as heroes, as the good guys in this particular drama because what was supposed to be a contest between two evenly matched, accomplished undefeated teams was unfolding like a Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight fight.
In five first half possessions, the Steelers offense scored three touchdowns and settled for a field goal on a fourth, and they accomplished that by converted 8-of-9 on third downs (88.9 percent) and were a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone, while their defense forced the Titans into a pair of three-and-outs and also had a turnover on downs on Tennessee's four first half possessions.
The statistics reinforce the notion of Steelers dominance, because at the end of the first half, they led in first downs, 14-5; total net yards, 238-83; third-down conversions, 88.9 percent-40 percent; passing yards, 160-50; and time of possession, 19:56-10:04. But then came the final 19 seconds of the first half, which combined to offer the Titans a glimmer of hope while providing a dim forecast of how the rest of the game might unfold.
The Steelers, with their 24-7 lead, had the ball at the Tennessee 37-yard line with 14 seconds left but no timeouts remaining. The prudent move would have been to look for a 10-yard completion along one of the sidelines and then turn the proceedings over to Chris Boswell with the realistic expectation of riding the wave of a 27-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. But instead, they went for the kill-shot and it blew up in their faces when Ben Roethlisberger's pass deep down the right sideline for Diontae Johnson, who already had two touchdown receptions in the game, was intercepted 8 yards deep in the end zone.
What at the time seemed to be nothing more than a blip on the radar turned out to be an approaching battleship armed to the teeth. The Titans slowly but surely took control of the game both offensively with a combination of quick-strike scoring plays and sustained drives, while the Tennessee defense started turning the Steelers over.
By the end of the third quarter, the Steelers' 24-7 lead had become 27-17, and then the Titans tightened the screws even more with a 70-yard drive that was capped by Henry diving into the end zone from the 1-yard line, and the white knuckles all seemed to be on the visitor's sideline. The Steelers, who had started so fast now seemed to be limping to the finish line, their undefeated status hanging by a thread.
They needed somebody to step up and save them, and it appeared it would be Roethlisberger. For all but one play, the drive was a thing of beauty. Starting at the 9-yard line, Roethlisberger directed a 16-play, 72-yard march in which he completed 4-of-4 on third downs to move the Steelers to the Titans' 9-yard line where there was another third down for him to convert. Already, this drive had consumed 7:38 off the game clock and looked like it would do no worse than end in another Boswell field goal, which would put the Titans in a spot where they would need a touchdown to pull out a victory.
On that third-and-2 from the 9-yard line, a quick pass to Chase Claypool came up inches short of a first down, but when tackle Jerald Hawkins, in the game as an extra tight end, was flagged for offensive pass interference – the technical explanation for him getting caught blocking a defender before the pass was completed – the Titans elected to take the penalty and put the Steelers in a third-and-12 from the 19-yard line instead of fourth-and-inches from the 8-yard line.
Maybe Roethlisberger's next pass was ill-advised or maybe it was just inaccurate, but adjectives aside the throw was down the middle into coverage for Smith-Schuster. And instead of the combat catch for the game-clinching touchdown that had been the idea, linebacker Jayon Brown tipped the ball into the air and Amani Hooker intercepted in the end zone for a touchback.
That made it official: the hunter had become the prey. The Steelers and their three-point lead were exposed to a Titans offense that now seemed to be the most confident unit on either team. As Tannehill proceeded to chew up the yardage in a methodical way, holding the Titans to a field goal and getting to overtime seemed the best outcome if the Steelers had any hope to leave Tennessee still undefeated.
With one minute to play and the ball at the Steelers 25-yard line, Stephon Tuitt made a play. In fact, it's fair to say Tuitt made THE play. With Tannehill looking to pass, Tuitt bulled his way into the backfield and set his sights on a sack but before he could finish Tannehill panicked and threw the ball away. Only he did it from within the boundaries of the pocket, and where the ball landed there were no Titans eligibles in the neighborhood.
Intentional grounding was called, and even though the Titans trimmed the second-and-20 from the 35-yard line into a fourth-and-13 from the 28-yard line, Gostkowski's assignment had been made more difficult by Tuitt's pass rush.
Wide right. Whew!!
During a postgame Zoom, Cam Heyward volleyed with the media a bit before his obvious mood prompted this question: "You guys are 6-0, yet you don't seem particularly thrilled. Is it just the second half that's sort of eating at you a little bit and that you needed to kind of get a little lucky there I guess to avoid overtime?"
"I don't take (6-0) for granted," said Heyward, "but there's a way that we like to play and there's a lot of meat left on that bone, as coach likes to say. I'm fine saying that. I believe in the guys we've got, and I'm confident we can do more. I look forward to answering the call next week."
Or as T.J. Watt put it: "We won, but we're not happy."