GREEN BAY – The Packers’ defense stood toe-to-toe with one of the NFL’s most dangerous, explosive offenses for nearly 60 minutes on Sunday night at Heinz Field.
And then Antonio Brown happened.
Ten months after Jared Cook’s jaw-dropping sideline snag sent the Packers to the NFC Championship Game, Brown pulled his own magic act with a remarkable toe-tapping 23-yard catch on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ sideline with 13 seconds remaining that even made the sideline officials do a double-take.
The catch, held up on further review, pushed Pittsburgh into Green Bay territory and helped set up Chris Boswell’s eventual 53-yard game-winning field goal as time expired, allowing Pittsburgh to escape with the 31-28 victory.
“I’m just looking on the jumbotron hoping he bobbled it a little bit,” cornerback Damarious Randall said. “Hell of a catch, man. He showed why he’s the best receiver in the league.”
The Packers knew exactly what they were getting in Brown, who entered Sunday’s showdown as the league leader in receptions (70) and receiving yards (1,026).
The oft-targeted Pro Bowler lived up to his reputation with 10 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, several of which came as a result of receptions the Packers’ secondary could only shake its head at.
There probably was no better example of how dynamic Brown is than the leaping 11-yard catch he made in the third quarter on a well-defended play at the Green Bay 3.
Two plays later, Brown caught a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 21. Yet, he saved his best work for the final series of the game.
Having just forced a Green Bay punt with the game tied at 28, the Steelers retook the field with 17 seconds on the clock, starting from their own 30.
In addition to his sideline catch, Brown also made a 14-yard reception and got out of bounds with 9 seconds left. Packers safety Morgan Burnett tackled Le’Veon Bell for a 2-yard loss on the next play, but it was close enough for Boswell to seal it.
“That definitely was a good catch,” cornerback Kevin King said. “I wasn’t sure if he got in or not. Seeing the replay, he got it in. That’s the NFL. It’s a game of big plays. A guy like that is elite for a reason because he makes big plays day-in and day-out. Hats off to him on that. We have to find a way to stop that.”
Brown’s production helped Pittsburgh recover after Green Bay’s defense forced three turnovers. It started with Randall picking off Roethlisberger in the first quarter, setting a new career-high with four interceptions in a season.
In the third quarter, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks batted a Roethlisberger pass in the air at the line of scrimmage, leading to a Blake Martinez interception.
It was the first of two takeaways Martinez earned in addition to his 15 tackles (12 solo). The Packers’ inside linebacker also corralled a Bell fumble forced by Burnett in the fourth quarter.
As much as the takeaways were appreciated, Green Bay’s defense made a big stop late in the fourth quarter to get the offense the ball back with less than two minutes remaining.
The Packers were unable to convert, leaving Roethlisberger with 17 seconds and two timeouts to work with. It was just enough to turn back Green Bay’s rally.
“When you’re playing against a really good team like that you just can’t let them get going,” said defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who had seven tackles and a sack. “Crushing their spirit, I think we did it a few times. When you’re facing Mike Tyson, you have to knock him out. You can’t let him hang around.”
Playing without Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews (groin) or starting defensive tackle Kenny Clark (ankle), the Packers held Bell in check for most of the game.
It ultimately came down to Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Fame quarterback, making plays with his two biggest targets with 22 of his 36 completions connecting with Brown and Bell.
Several Packers players said afterward there are no moral victories in what ultimately amounts to the team’s sixth loss of the season, but the defense continued to build on a string of strong performances against Roethlisberger and Co.
The offense, sparked by big plays early, put up 28 points against a Pittsburgh defense that hadn’t allowed more than 17 in a game during the Steelers’ five-game winning streak.
“Definitely the best game we played as a team (without Rodgers),” Daniels said. “When you play off a really good experienced playoff, potential Super Bowl team like that, you can’t make the little mistakes that we made and let them capitalize on them. Offense scored 28 points against an 8-2 team. We just have to make sure we’re where we’re supposed to be every play on our side of the ball.”
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