The play, and the game, changed in the blink of an eye for Keenan Allen and the Chargers on Sunday night.
Allen was certain that a Philip Rivers pass into the end zone would be intercepted by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden late in the third quarter.
A split-second later, after a violent head-on, helmet-to-helmet collision between Haden and Steelers safety Sean Davis, the ball bounced off of Haden’s hands, caromed straight into the air and fell into the hands of Allen for a 10-yard touchdown.
It was the easiest and most improbable of the 14 catches that Allen hauled in for 148 yards in the Chargers’ stunning 33-30 come-from-behind victory in Heinz Field, and it was the one that left Allen shaking his head.
“When Philip threw it, it was like, ‘Joe made a play,’” Allen said. “Then Joe got hit, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I can make a play!’ And I was able to bring it down. I thought for sure it was a pick. He caught it. Then his own man hit him. Thank you.”
Rivers breathed a sigh of relief.
“It was kind of like, ‘Phew, we got away with one there,’” Rivers said. “I really liked it when I threw it. I thought it was going to be a give-me touchdown to Keenan. You know, that’s a heck of a corner. He’s been a Pro Bowler for many years, and he undercut it, and we got a lucky bounce.
“As my dad always said, the ball’s not round, and it bounces funny sometimes, and it bounced for us on that one.”
Allen’s fifth touchdown of the season and Rivers’ ensuing two-point conversion pass to Antonio Gates pulled the Chargers, who trailed by 16 points at halftime, to within 23-15 of the Steelers with 1 minute 43 seconds left in the third quarter and sent a surge of electricity through the visiting bench.
“I felt the momentum shift when we got the two-point conversion to Gates and got to within 23-15,” said Rivers, who completed 26 of 36 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns. “It felt like, ‘All right, this is gonna be a game.’ It didn’t feel like that when it was 23-7.”
Desmond King’s 73-yard punt return for a touchdown tied the score 23-23 early in the fourth quarter. After King and defensive back Adrian Phillips broke up passes to force a punt on Pittsburgh’s next possession, the Chargers took over at their 21-yard line with 12 minutes left.
The crowd of 61,069 rose to its feet, began waving yellow Terrible Towels and singing “Renegade,” the Styx song that is blared over Heinz Field’s public-address system early in the fourth quarter of every game.
The decibel level jumped even higher when, on the Chargers’ first play, Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds delivered a crushing blow on running back Austin Ekeler to force an incompletion.
Linebacker T.J. Watt waved his arms frantically, encouraging the fans to scream even louder, creating the kind of atmosphere that often suffocates opponents.
The Chargers didn’t flinch. Rivers completed a 14-yard pass over the middle to Allen to silence the crowd. Rookie running back Justin Jackson rushed for 18 yards and took a swing pass from Rivers to pick up another 19 yards.
Jackson finished off a seven-play, 79-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown run to give the Chargers a 30-23 lead with 8:09 left.
“I think we were ready for the atmosphere,” Allen said. “I said it all week, I can’t wait for [‘Renegade’] to come on in the fourth quarter, y’all. And I don’t know if you all could tell, but when the song came on, we looked a little more hyped than they were. And I think it showed.”
The Steelers drove 78 yards in 12 plays, with Ben Roethlisberger hitting Jaylen Samuels with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tie the score 30-30 with 4:10 left.
But Allen, who notched his fourth game since the start of 2017 with at least 10 receptions, 100 yards and a touchdown, made two more big catches on the Chargers’ game-winning drive.
A 12-yard pass from Rivers to Allen gave the Chargers a first down at their 49-yard line. Four plays later, on a third-and-four from the Steelers’ 34-yard line, Allen found a soft spot in Pittsburgh’s zone coverage and caught a 12-yard pass for a first down at the Steelers’ 22.
Three plays later, kicker Michael Badgley attempted the first of three potential game-winning field goals, the first of which sailed wide left and the second of which was blocked. Both plays were nullified by offside penalties before Badgley nailed a 29-yard field goal with no time left.
“Man, that was mind-blowing,” Allen said of the nerve-racking finish. “I thought it was smart by them — no timeouts, go offsides, ice the kicker and see what happens. But hats off to Badgley. It was a great kick.”
Allen was like a security blanket for Rivers all game. Although his longest reception went for only 21 yards, Allen was always in the right spot at the right time, providing Rivers with reliable targets.
“I think it was more their coverage dictated when you could get him matched up in the slot and get him some easy completions,” Rivers said of his connection with Allen. “Then he had some chunk plays, too. We felt coming in that we could get some high-percentage stuff to him.”
Afterward, Allen, Rivers and Gates, who have experienced too many games in which the Chargers would wilt amid the pressure, reveled in the victory.
“It shows you how strong we are, how much we want it for each other, how much hard work we put in,” Allen said.