PITTSBURGH — The soaring if habitually overlooked Los Angeles Chargers came to Pittsburgh on Sunday night to prove that the AFC power structure had shifted, perhaps even farther west than the home of the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs.
With the NFL regular season entering the final month, it was a game to certify which team might best challenge the ascendant Chiefs and the reigning New England Patriots for the AFC championship.
And in a quirky, entertaining game that did not end until there were three successive tries at a last-second winning field goal, the Chargers made their case, rallying from 16 points down late in the third quarter for a stirring 33-30 victory.
“We said we were going to come in and take what we wanted,” Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen said in a rambunctious visiting locker room. “And that’s what we did. We stuck together, got a road win in a tough place and did it on national TV.”
Summing up his team’s current attitude, Allen added: “See, we can play, too.”
By now, the rest of the NFL is listening. The Chargers (9-3) play well in close games; a third of their victories have been by 3 points or fewer. Their defense is tenacious, and their 37-year-old quarterback, Philip Rivers, is having perhaps the best season of his career.
Los Angeles is now tied with the Patriots (9-3) and another AFC upstart, the Houston Texans (9-3). Each team is one game behind Kansas City (10-2). The Steelers, who still lead the AFC North, fell to 7-4-1.
The turning point of Sunday’s game was a peculiar ricochet touchdown catch by Allen that suddenly drew the Chargers within a touchdown and a 2-point conversion of the Steelers. With less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Rivers unwisely threw a pass into double coverage that surrounded Allen in the Pittsburgh end zone.
Closing in on Allen’s left, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden snatched Rivers’ pass, but an instant later Haden was hit violently by his teammate, free safety Sean Davis, who had raced in from Allen’s right.
Both Steelers were knocked the ground, and the ball squirted into the air above the pileup, where Allen reached out and corralled the pass as he fell to the ground for a stunning touchdown.
“I thought it was a pick, and I guess it was,” Allen said later. “But then I saw that I could make a play instead. And I said, ‘Thank you.’”
Rivers then lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone to tight end Antonio Gates for the 2-point conversion. The Chargers were one touchdown drive from tying the game.
“It was a break, but that’s kind of how our season has gone,” Gates said. “Everything has bounced our way.”
Before that good fortune, the Steelers had largely been dominating the game.
In the first half, which Pittsburgh led, 23-7, the Steelers had twice as many first downs as Los Angeles, and the longstanding, potent rapport between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown was at its best, resulting in six receptions, 117 yards and one picture perfect, 46-yard sideline grab that led to the Steelers’ first touchdown.
The Chargers might have been shut out in the first half if not for what appeared to be a blatant missed penalty call by the game officials late in the first quarter. Los Angeles tackle Sam Tevi moved backward before the snap, and on the ensuing play Rivers tossed a 46-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin. But there was no penalty called.
While most of the third quarter was uneven and a bit sloppy — the Steelers were undone by multiple penalties on offense — Allen’s acrobatic touchdown clearly shifted the game momentum toward the Chargers.
Pittsburgh picked up only one first down on their next possession, and when they punted, the Chargers’ Desmond King II fielded the ball at his 27-yard line, quickly sidestepped two pursuing Steelers and seized an opening. Various Pittsburgh defenders could not run him down as he bolted 73 yards for a touchdown.
The Chargers tied the game with another 2-point conversion.
The teams traded touchdown drives, and a 30-30 game wound toward the closing minutes. But the Chargers held the ball last, and they had the hotter quarterback in Rivers.
“We just had a lot of faith,” said Rivers, who completed 26 of 36 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. “This team is like that. We expect good things to happen.”
Rivers completed four passes in the game’s final drive, which set up a 39-yard field goal attempt by Michael Badgley with three seconds left in the fourth quarter.
It set in motion a heart-racing, roller-coaster finish.
Badgley booted the football left of the goal posts. The home crowd roared, expecting overtime. But Pittsburgh had jumped offside, racing across the line of scrimmage before the snap in an effort to block the kick.
With the 5-yard penalty, Badgley then lined up for a 34-yard field goal. This kick was blocked, but again the Steelers were offsides.
Finally, from 29 yards now, Badgley ended the game with a successful attempt.
For the Steelers, the collapse in the second half is only going to add to recent concerns about the team. They may have weathered the saga over Le’veon Bell, their star running back who is not playing this season because of a contract dispute, but they looked ragged in a narrow victory over lowly Jacksonville two weeks ago and last week made critical mistakes late in a disheartening loss at Denver.
“Got to win those games,” said an unusually tight-lipped coach Mike Tomlin Sunday. “We didn’t. There are consequences; we’ll absorb it.”
Not surprisingly, the mood in the Chargers locker room was far more upbeat. They know they are near the top of an increasing restructured AFC.
“A big win for us,” said an almost giddy Rivers. “Because it will build confidence. You need that moving forward.”