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Steelers 26, Colts 24: Steelers win counts in horseshoes — and in football

The Steelers always seem to be the ones carrying the horseshoe when they play the team with the horseshoes on their helmets.

The Colts signed Adam Vinatieri from the Patriots after the 2005 season to replace Mike Vanderjagt, whose time in Indianapolis infamously ended when he missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds of a 21-18 playoff loss to the Steelers.

That victory helped carry the Steelers to their long-awaited fifth Super Bowl title.

Fourteen years later, Vinatieri pulled a Vanderjagt.

The 46-year-old gave some fan a nice souvenir when he shanked a 43-yard attempt so far to the left that it missed the net behind the goal post at Heinz Field. That kick would have given the Colts a one-point lead with 1:11 remaining.

Instead, the Steelers took a knee and won 26-24.

The 2019 Steelers have no clear path to a championship like they did after they vanquished the Colts in 2005, and the Ravens became a bigger obstacle with their win over the Patriots Sunday night, but this win does get the Steelers to .500 for the first time this season.

This is the kind of game that went the Steelers’ way in 2017, but not in 2018.

Two years ago, four of the Steelers’ 13 wins came on last-minute field goals by Chris Boswell.

Last year, the Steelers might not have missed the playoffs if Boswell had made his only field-goal attempt at Cleveland in Week 1 or if he had been able to send the game into overtime with a 40-yarder at Oakland in Week 14.

Boswell made all four of his attempts Sunday and is 17-of-18 for the season, his only miss a 54-yarder last week.

If we didn’t know this already, we learned Sunday that if any more games come down to the kickers this season, the Steelers (4-4) figure to have an advantage.

How much more did we learn about the Steelers Sunday? To prove that they’ve truly recovered from their 0-3 start, we needed to see them beat a team that currently has a winning record for the first time this season.

They did that, but is the quality of the win diminished because it came against Brian Hoyer?

For the fifth time in their last six meetings against the Colts (5-3), the Steelers beat their backup quarterback.

Jacoby Brissett, who backed up an injured Andrew Luck when the Steelers won 20-17 at Indianapolis in 2017, is now the starter with Luck retired. He’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions this season, but he went down with a knee injury in the second quarter Sunday.

And so Hoyer joined Scott Tolzien (2016), Matt Hasselbeck (2015), Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter (both in 2011) in the pantheon of Colts quarterbacks who have stood in for Peyton Manning and Luck in five of the Steelers’ six straight wins over the Colts.

But guess what? The Colts weren’t the only team trying to win with their backup quarterback Sunday.

Mason Rudolph improved to 3-2 as a starter, and all four of the Steelers’ wins this season have come without Ben Roethlisberger. Since his career began in 2004, the Steelers had never won more than three games without him in any season.

Rudolph seemed to be shackled by a game plan in which his top three receivers were targeted on only 11 of his 35 pass attempts. Jaylen Samuels caught 13 of those passes, accounting for half of Rudolph’s 26 completions and 73 of his 191 passing yards.

One thing Samuels didn’t do was run the wildcat. The Steelers seemed to trust Rudolph enough to forego that scheme even with Samuels back from his injury. Rudolph threw one interception that wasn’t his fault. It bounced off the hands of JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers’ opening possession. His lone touchdown, a seven-yard pass to Vance McDonald that gave the Steelers a 20-16 lead in the third quarter, was set up by Bud Dupree’s strip sack of Hoyer at the Steelers’ 46-yard line.

Rudolph’s longest completion of the day was a 40-yarder to James Washington (four catches for 69 yards, both career highs) that sparked the drive that led to Boswell’s game-winning field goal. Since Rudolph is their starting quarterback for 2019, perhaps the Steelers did have a depth-chart advantage over the Colts at that position on Sunday, However, any “yeah, but … ” regarding this win can be deleted considering the fact that the Steelers were without James Conner. A ground game that averaged 3.6 yards per carry didn’t help Rudolph Sunday.

While Rudolph hasn’t done anything to create a quarterback controversy when Roethlisberger presumably returns next August, he’s taking the Steelers far enough for Boswell’s leg and their defense to take them the rest of the way.

And that defense took them a long way Sunday. Minkah Fitzpatrick literally went a long way on his 96-yard pick-six of Hoyer that flipped what was looking like a two-score Colts’ lead into a 10-10 tie late in the second quarter.

Essentially taking out an advance on next year’s first-round draft pick (the Steelers traded their top 2020 pick for Fitzpatrick, a No. 11 pick last year) has proven to be a wise investment.

Fitzpatrick is tied for second in the league with four interceptions, the most by a Steeler in a single season since Troy Polamalu had seven in 2010.

While we’re talking about Steelers defenders who helped deliver championships, no that wasn’t James Harrison blocking Colts offensive lineman Quenton Nelson on Fitzpatrick’s return. That No. 92 was Ola Adeniyi. But it was the Steelers’ longest pick-six since Harrison’s 100-yard jaunt in Super Bowl XLIII.

Steelers also are climbing the league leaderboard in sacks. T.J. Watt is ninth with 7.5 after getting 1.5 Sunday. Dupree is 14th with six, which matches his career high, after ringing up two sacks against the Colts.

With 29 sacks this season, the Steelers are on pace to surpass the team record of 56 set in 2017.

The Steelers had five sacks Sunday against a team that entered the game with just 11 sacks allowed. Hoyer was sacked four times and Brissett was sacked once.

Whether it was Hoyer, Brissett, Jim Harbaugh, Jeff George or Gary Hogeboom back there, this victory comes with no asterisks. The defense sealed the deal for the third straight week, something it didn’t do enough last year.

Vinatieri would have had a better shot at a field goal, and the Colts would have been able to run out the clock, if it weren’t for Dupree tackling Marlon Mack for a three-yard loss on third-and-1 with 1:20 left. And don’t forget Terrell Edmunds breaking up Hoyer’s two-point conversion attempt when the Colts took a 24-23 lead with 8:43 left in the game. Because of that play, Boswell’s 26-yarder with 6:36 left didn’t tie the game, it proved to be the game-winner.

Now, the Steelers still aren’t as good as either of the two teams that played Sunday night. Steelers fans had to hold their nose as they pulled for the Patriots to beat the Ravens. Of course, when the Steelers needed the Patriots to win, they didn’t. The Ravens won 37-20 to improve to 6-2 and take a two-game lead on the Steelers in the AFC North.

If the Steelers called up “Playoffs” on their GPS right now, it probably would map them on the wild-card route. The Colts currently hold the second wild-card spot, one game ahead of the Steelers, but the Steelers claimed the tiebreaker over the Colts on Sunday. That could come in handy.

For now, the Steelers fall under the “In the Hunt” column in playoff picture graphics. Not a bad place to be at the midpoint of a season in which they started 0-3.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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