PITTSBURGH – Perhaps it’s fitting Sunday’s bizarre game at Heinz Field ended with Adam Vinatieri attempting a kick into the NFL’s version of the Bermuda Triangle.
The Indianapolis Colts veteran’s 43-yard try went very wide to the left, and the Pittsburgh Steelers escaped with a 26-24 victory that went a long way toward confirming the curse that seems to hover over this franchise whenever it visits the Steel City.
The Colts are 2-16 all time in Pittsburgh, and they’ve won just once in the city since Earl Morrall led the Baltimore version of the franchise to victory in 1968.
“It was a really strange game, for sure,” Colts running back Nyheim Hines said. “Honestly, I think it was the fastest game I’ve ever played in my life. A bunch of weird stuff, even the final score was kind of weird. Just a weird game.”
The teams packed a season’s worth of storylines into three hours and three minutes near the vortex of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.
Of most immediate concern for Indianapolis, starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett went down early in the second quarter with what appears to be a left knee sprain.
His replacement, Brian Hoyer, finished 17-of-26 for 168 yards and three touchdowns. But he also threw an ill-advised interception that was returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Steelers cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.
That was the second-longest pick returned for a score in Pittsburgh’s history and the longest such return since 1933.
The Colts also lost starting center Ryan Kelly to a “burner” in the first half, and Pittsburgh came into the game without its top two rushers – James Conner and Benny Snell Jr.
The resulting contest was sloppy and inconsistent but wildly entertaining.
The teams combined for five turnovers, a Justin Houston sack resulted in a safety for Indianapolis and there were four lead changes in the second half.
It all came down to a field goal try from the greatest clutch kicker in league history. And he missed.
Colts head coach Frank Reich said the analytics told him the Colts were well within field-goal range, but the open end of Heinz Field – which offers a spectacular view of downtown – has been a graveyard for kickers since the stadium opened in 2002.
Vinatieri didn’t fall back on the swirling winds or notoriously poor field conditions as an excuse. Nor did he bring up the snap and hold – an operation Reich said “wasn’t clean” – he just owned up to his mistake.
And the truth is, the kick wasn’t close.
“I just missed it,” Vinatieri said. “I have to do better than that.”
Had the kick gone through, it would have saved the Colts (5-3) from another ugly week.
Indianapolis led 16-13 at halftime, but the margin should have been much greater.
Vinatieri opened the scoring with a 25-yard field goal on a drive that reached the Steelers’ 7-yard line before stalling out. Pittsburgh tied the game on a 21-yard field goal by Chris Boswell after its own failure inside the 10-yard line.
Then Brissett got hurt, and Hoyer threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight Jack Doyle on his first attempt.
With time running out in the half, the Colts were driving again. But on first down at the 20-yard line, Hoyer tried to go back to Doyle and Fitzpatrick jumped the route and returned the interception to tie the score at 10.
“You are trying to do a little play-action up the seam, and down there (Fitzpatrick’s coverage is) a little tighter,” Hoyer said. “So you must get it there a little quicker or move on. So it’s something I will learn from.”
Hoyer answered quickly with a six-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Zach Pascal. The extra point was blocked, and the Colts led 16-10 with 42 seconds left.
Pittsburgh (4-4) appeared to run out the clock with a short completion near midfield, but Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard was called for unnecessary roughness after joining the pile late. Boswell hit a 51-yard field goal for free points as time expired.
The Steelers took the lead for the first time in the third quarter when Mason Rudolph – who was 26-of-35 for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception – hit tight end Vance McDonald for a 7-yard TD. That drive also was aided by an unnecessary roughness flag against Leonard.
In all, Indianapolis was penalized seven times for 89 yards to go along with three turnovers.
“We know what the Steelers do,” Reich said. “They’re good at creating turnovers and negative plays, and we said if we can minimize turnovers and win that battle, and minimize the negative plays, then we’d win the game. And we didn’t do that.”
The negative plays included five sacks that raised the Colts’ two-week total to nine.
But, for all its miscues, Indianapolis still was in the game late.
Houston sacked Rudolph in the end zone to cut the deficit to 20-18 with 1:05 remaining in the third quarter, but Chester Rogers muffed the ensuing free kick and Boswell took advantage with a 33-yard field goal that pushed the home team’s lead back to five points with 14:57 remaining.
Rogers made up for it with a 4-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-goal, and Indianapolis led 24-23 with 8:43 left after a 2-point conversion failed.
Then a pair of rookie mistakes bit the Colts.
Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was beaten for a 40-yard completion to James Washington that jump-started the Steelers’ ensuing drive. Then cornerback Marvell Tell – who earlier forced a fumble that helped set up Rogers’ touchdown – was called for pass interference at the 7-yard line.
Boswell’s 26-yard field goal with 6:36 remaining proved to be the game winner.
Indianapolis is left to lick its mostly self-inflicted wounds and prepare for a home game against the Miami Dolphins next week.
The loss dropped the Colts out of first place in the AFC South. They now trail the Houston Texans (6-3) by one-half game.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot one too many times, and when you do that on the road, it’s really tough to win,” Doyle said. “We all took our turns doing it, and that stinks. (But) that’s what’s great about football.
“We are going to go back and look at the film, get another chance next week to go get better and have a great week of practice and try to get another win.”