Having surged into a commanding 29-0 lead by late in the third quarter, the Vikings found themselves inches away from an embarrassing final-play collapse — Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s incomplete pass to Pat Freiermuth in the end zone quashing a potential comeback for the ages.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith flew into tight end Freiermuth to force the incompletion, sparing Minnesota blushes and lifting his team to 6-7 on the year.
Roethlisberger was keen not to put any blame on the 23-year-old rookie, who was said to be devastated by his dropped catch.
“He’s taking it pretty hard,” Roethlisberger told reporters.
“I pulled him next to my locker and talked to him a little bit at the end. I got a lot of faith and belief and trust in that guy — he’s got a lot of heart.
“He’ll eat this for a while and he shouldn’t because it’s not on him.”
Cooking with gas
Smith’s heroics took the spotlight away from a blistering performance by Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who looked to have set his team on track for a straightforward win with 205 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson’s first quarter touchdown from Vikings QB Kirk Cousin — topped up by a Greg Joseph field goal — had set the home team on their way before Cook’s two quickfire touchdowns threatened to turn the contest into a procession.
Joseph added two more field goals after halftime to make it 29 unanswered points, the Steelers only getting on the scoreboard with two minutes remaining in the third quarter when Roethlisberger threw a short touchdown pass to Najee Harris.
Three minutes into the fourth and a once unassailable lead had evaporated to nine points — Harris adding his second touchdown and Roethlisberger throwing a stunning 30-yard touchdown pass to James Washington.
Clearly keen not to be upstaged, Cousins proceeded to one-up his opposing signal caller by spiraling a spectacular 62-yard touchdown pass to K.J Osborn — capping a 308-yard, two touchdown performance — to restore the Vikings’ cushion to 16 points.
Yet the Steelers again refused to lie down. Roethlisberger threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Freiermuth before finding Diontae Johnson for the two-point conversion to tee up a grandstand finish, but Smith’s intervention denied that same Big Ben-Freirmuth combo from completing a fabled comeback.
‘I don’t look at moral victories’
The loss sees the Steelers drop to 6-6-1, putting a dent in their playoff hopes with two difficult games against the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs — both 8-4 — to come in December.
Some may have taken heart from the manner of the fightback, but Roethlisberger said he had no interest in “moral victories.”
“We’re running out of time,” Roethlisberger admitted.
“I don’t look at moral victories, I told the guys that — I’m not gonna tell y’all, ‘Great moral victory, great fightback,’ because it’s not that, but I’m proud of them for fighting.”
‘Another fun night’
The Vikings on the other hand, will just be relieved to have emerged victorious.
After suffering the ignominy of being the first team to lose to the Detroit Lions (1-10-1), which ended an almost year-long winless streak last week, it’s hard to imagine the mental toll that such a collapse would have inflicted.
Head coach Mike Zimmer will now have time to get to the bottom of his team’s Jekyll and Hyde performance before the Vikings face the Chicago Bears (4-8) on December 21.
“Another fun night,” Zimmer told reporters.
“That team who played in the first half for us was pretty darn good, and I think could probably beat anybody. The team who played in the second half could probably get beat by anybody.
“We kept the TV ratings up too, so that’s good — every week now we do it,” Zimmer joked.
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