The Chargers came to Heinz Field on Sunday night intent on proving they belong among the NFL’s top teams. They succeeded — spectacularly, dramatically and historically.
Rookie Michael Badgley’s 29-yard field goal as time expired lifted the Chargers to one of the franchise’s most improbable victories, 33-30 over Pittsburgh. They overcame a 23-7 halftime deficit that stretched into the final two minutes of the third quarter.
The Steelers, a team founded in 1933, never had lost a game at home when leading by as many as 14 points.
“They believe,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said of his players, “and if you believe in something strongly, you know, you can will it to happen.”
The Chargers came back by scoring 23 unanswered points, scoring on all three of their second-half possessions and a 73-yard punt return by Desmond King.
Even more improbable, the winning kick came on Badgley’s third try. On the first, he missed wide left from 39 yards, but the Steelers were offside.
“I didn’t play the wind well enough,” he said. “The wind was whipping around in every direction.”
On the second, Pittsburgh blocked Badgley’s 34-yarder, but again the Steelers were offside.
Pittsburgh was offside for a third time on the winner, but the Chargers refused the penalty and accepted the victory instead.
“To come out in the second half and do what we did takes guts,” Badgley said. “Just a lot of heart out of all these guys.”
The win was the Chargers’ eighth in nine games. At 9-3, they trail Kansas City by one game in the AFC West and lead the conference’s wild-card race.
But none of it would have happened had the team not completely reversed direction after halftime.
“We knew we were going to win,” defensive tackle Justin Jones insisted. “We know we can ball. We weren’t leaving this stadium without a win. They had to run through us, know what I’m saying?”
The Chargers trailed 13-0 early on, gave up a touchdown in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter and then retreated to the locker room knowing the Steelers would get the ball to start the second half.
They had failed to put any pressure on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and had established nothing in the form of a running attack. At that moment, they had two yards rushing on nine attempts.
“When you don’t have a run game that’s the kind of game you get yourself into,” center Mike Pouncey said. “You can’t win many games like that. It wasn’t anything with the play-calling. It was us up front.”
After stopping the Steelers on that first possession of the third quarter, the Chargers began their epic comeback, pulling even early in the fourth quarter with a pair of thrilling, unlikely touchdowns, each followed by a two-point conversion.
The first was a 10-yard pass from Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen on which Steelers defenders Joe Haden and Sean Davis had coverage but collided, causing the ball to pop into the air and into the hands of a diving Allen.
“That’s just how the season has been going,” veteran tight end Antonio Gates said. “It’s bounced our way, unlike in the past.”
The second was King’s punt return in the opening two minutes of the fourth quarter. King went all the way, through the center of the field, without being touched.
“A lot of lanes open up when you make that first person miss,” he said. “I saw a big gap through the middle.”
Rivers hit Gates for the first conversion and Allen for the second, and the Chargers were back in a game that had been in Pittsburgh’s control.
The Chargers took the lead 30-23 when the running game resurfaced behind rookie Justin Jackson.
Midway through the fourth quarter, he capped a seven-play, 79-yard drive with an 18-yard run for his first career NFL score.
Jackson, who finished with 63 yards in eight carries, was needed because Melvin Gordon was out with a knee injury and Austin Ekeler had struggled in trying to replace him.
“He’s got fresh legs,” Lynn said of Jackson. “That young man, he’s a good runner.”
In the end, the Chargers, who haven’t had the greatest of luck with kickers of late, won on a kick, in a place where they rarely win, to give this team the defining victory it sought.
The same old Chargers weren’t the same this time.