Steelers Stop Favre’s Winning Streak
PITTSBURGH - There was no last-minute magic from Brett Favre this time.
Instead of adding another chapter to his book of dramatic storybook finishes as he did twice during the first six undefeated weeks of the season, the Minnesota Vikings' iconic quarterback took it on the chin from the defending Super Bowl champions at Heinz Field.
Favre committed two turnovers in the final 61/2 minutes Sunday that the Pittsburgh Steelers returned for touchdowns that made the difference in a 27-17 thriller.
Like that, Favre - who makes his much-anticipated return to Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday - has hit another milestone: his first loss as a Viking.
"We knew it would be tough coming in here," said Favre, who threw a season-high 51 passes, was sacked a season-high four times and had a season-low 76.8 passer rating.
Despite the presence of NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (6-1) recorded another season low, rushing a mere 23 times, and banked on Favre's arm. That's not necessarily a bad strategy, especially in a tight game on the road. A week earlier, Favre's 58-yard completion to Sidney Rice inside the two-minute warning set up the eventual game-winning field goal vs. the Baltimore Ravens.
In Week 3, with time for one play against the San Francisco 49ers, Favre threw a 32-yard strike to little-used fourth receiver Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone for the winner.
Such heroics, though, seemingly gave the Steelers (5-2) more reasons to work themselves up for the challenge of stopping Favre.
"It's always exciting to be the 'other' team," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said during a midweek interview. "Even though we won the Super Bowl, all you see is that we're playing Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson.
"Nobody expects us to win. We're not a sexy pick. We get no respect. That's our mentality."
The Steelers might also have entered Sunday's showdown undefeated - if not for fourth-quarter meltdowns in back-to-back losses at the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals. The latter case was most egregious, as Pittsburgh blew a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead, leading critics to question a team that since has won four consecutive games.
Here's what's been whispered: Can they finish?
"It's black or white to me," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, standing off to the side as the locker room cleared. "Either you make the plays or you don't. Guys stepped up today. When we don't, we lose. That's the story of the NFL. These games come down to critical plays at critical moments - especially when you're playing good people."
That his offense twice settled for Jeff Reed field goals and squandered a chance with a Rashard Mendenhall fumble (recovered at the 4) as drives sputtered in the red zone wasn't lost on Tomlin.
"When you march the length of the field and settle for field goals," he said, "you expose yourself to close finishes."
Minnesota could also second-guess itself for not calling Peterson's number enough late in the third quarter, when it was poised to take a 14-13 lead and had the ball first-and-goal at the 1. In a similar situation in the second quarter, Peterson knifed in for a go-ahead 2-yard TD on third-and-goal.
Yet after Peterson was stuffed up the middle in the third quarter, the Vikings had Favre throw play-action passes to the back of the end zone and to the flat. Both passes were incomplete, and Minnesota settled for an 18-yard Ryan Longwell field goal.
Favre said he never lobbied coach Brad Childress to go for it on fourth-and-1. Asked what he thought would have been best with the ball at the 1, he said, "I think you'd be better off handing it to Adrian."
Peterson finished with 129 yards, 69 on the ground.
Despite leaving projected points on the field, the Vikings still had a chance to win.
With Pittsburgh clinging to a 20-17 lead with 1:15 on the clock and Minnesota driving - Peterson's violent 29-yard catch-and-run, accentuated as he literally ran over Randall Gay, put the Vikings in striking range - Ben Roethlisberger was a bit restless on the Steelers sideline.
Roethlisberger knows Favre's history well enough.
"I just wanted him to leave me some time," Roethlisberger said.
Touchdowns off turnovers@
The Steelers defense did even better. After Favre's screen pass from the Pittsburgh 19 deflected off the hands of running back Chester Taylor, Keyaron Fox snagged the ball and raced 82 yards for the clinching score.
"A fluke accident," said Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams, mindful that Minnesota entered the game with four giveaways, tied for the league low. "Their guy was in the right place at the right time."
But lightning struck twice. About five minutes before Fox's score, linebacker LaMarr Woodley scooped up a Favre fumble forced by Brett Keisel's swat and rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown. Favre, who finished with 344 passing yards, was looking for Rice (11 catches, 136 yards) in the back of the end zone and never saw Keisel's wide outside rush.
Woodley, who last season became the first player in NFL history to post multiple sacks in four consecutive postseason games, made a split-second decision to not simply fall on the loose ball. He took much ribbing for his runback, which evoked memories of James Harrison's Super Bowl-record 100-yard interception return touchdown last February, as he picked up blockers and weaved his way to the end zone.
"I thought Woodley was going to take all day," Tomlin said. "It was like watching in slow-motion."
Said Woodley: "It felt like 100 yards, because it was so slow. The defensive linemen told me I made them feel good because I ran like a big guy."
Woodley said Fox is better-equipped for such long-distance jaunts because he plays primarily on special teams and is used to sprinting the length of the field on coverage units.
Yet both returns had something in common: blockers who formed a convoy.
"Coach (Dick) LeBeau preaches that," Woodley said, referring to his coordinator. "If we get an interception or someone picks up a fumble, 'Everybody turn and block somebody.' That's what we do in practice. So when it happens in the game, it's just natural."
Back to Lambeau as foe@
LeBeau also cooked up his usual assortment of exotic blitzes. Favre suspected that Pittsburgh blitzed on nearly all of Minnesota's 78 plays, and it was not an exaggeration. There were zone blitzes, overload blitzes, inside linebacker blitzes. And the Steelers disguised them well, later in the game blitzing with two defensive linemen on the field. The Vikings generally blocked the rush well, but the chaos rushed Favre more often than not.
"That's what they do," Favre said. "They give you a lot of looks. You don't know exactly where they're coming from. They thrive on that. And they'll do it next week, whoever they play."
Next week. Favre knows exactly who the Vikings' next opponent is. The Packers.
"I'm glad the first game is over and done with," Favre said, referring to Minnesota's 30-23 victory against his former team in Week 4 in Minneapolis. "My career with Green Bay speaks for itself, and the games I've played in Lambeau Field - it's a special place. That won't change. For three hours, I'll be on the other side.
"Do I know what it's going to feel like? I have no idea, because I've never been on the other side. But I know our team needs a win and it's going to be a tough place to play."
In that regard, it might even be a bit like Heinz Field.