The 1972 Miami Dolphins can breathe again after the last undefeated team of the season, the Steelers, finished their run through the Washington Football Team, whose defense made important stops late at the end of the game, to 23:17 on Monday night in Pittsburgh to win.
The defeat prevented the Steelers (11-1) from keeping up with the 1972 Dolphins, the only team to end a perfect season by winning a Super Bowl. Immediately it prevented them from qualifying for the playoffs and linked them with the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions, for the best record in the AFC with four games remaining. This season, only the team with the best record in the conference will get a reunion in the first round of the playoffs instead of the two best teams.
The Steelers made it through the first 10 games of the season thanks to a strong defense and the resurrection of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was out with an injury for most of last season. While dominating only a handful of games, the Steelers got off to the best start in the franchise’s 87-year history, and seemed like a chance to end the NFL’s first undefeated regular season since 2007, when the New England Patriots went 16-0 before they finally lose the Super Bowl to the Giants.
But last week the Steelers barely beat the Shorthanded Ravens in a game that was postponed three times due to a coronavirus outbreak among Baltimore employees, leading Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to criticize his team’s offense. And on Monday, in a game that was also pushed back due to the schedule changes in Week 12, the Steelers blew the 14-point lead they built in the first half, failing Washington’s four-goal offensive stop The second half before the defense intercepted Roethlisberger to seal the victory.
“We’re getting to the point of the season where you have to be sharp in all areas,” said Roethlisberger in a press conference after the game. “There can be all kinds of distractions and changes in this, that and the other, but at the end of the day we have to play good football.”
After perhaps the biggest turmoil of the season, Washington is now 5-7, staying first in NFC East after week 13. The Giants, who have the same record, defeated the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the first time a team from NFC East beat an opponent with a win record this season.
Washington have now won three games in a row, an unlikely turnaround for a team that started the season 1-5. Coach Ron Rivera replaced quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen, who made four starts each, in favor of Alex Smith, who made his own comeback after 17 operations to repair a leg injury he sustained in 2018.
Smith, 36, threw 296 yards and a touchdown to overcome the loss of the rookie who trailed Antonio Gibson, who left the game prematurely with a toe injury. Tight end Logan Thomas, who was wide receiver Cam Sims, and JD McKissic, who ran back, made 24 of Smith’s 31 passes.
After Washington scored just one field goal just before half-time, things looked like a different team in the second half. Smith, who was under pressure for much of the game, led Washington onto the field in the third quarter, with Peyton Barber running back on a 1-yard run. Smith then hit Thomas for a 15 yard score to tie the game at 17-17.
Dustin Hopkins kicked a 45-yard field goal to put Washington in the lead 20-17 and 2:04. On the next possession, Roethlisberger’s pass was tipped and then intercepted by linebacker Jon Bostic. Hopkins kicked another 45-yard field goal.
After losing its chance at perfection, Pittsburgh will now try to regroup before facing the Buffalo Bills (9-3), Indianapolis Colts (8-4) and Cleveland Browns (9-3) in three games who are all battling for playoff spots in their last four games. Tomlin said his team is looking forward to the challenge.
“We are now facing a loss and now we have a chance to smile at it,” he said.