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.”
Ben Roehtlisberger and Philip Rivers meet up at the 50-yard line after a 33-30 win.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Justin Jackson is tackkled after a short run on fourth quarter drive at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers receive Keenan Allen scores a two point conversion to tie the game at 23 in the fourth quarter on Sunday in Pittsburgh.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Steelers defensive backs Joe Haden and Sean Davis collide while trying to intercept a Philip Rivers pass only to have it end up in the hands of Keenan Allen for a third quarter touchdown.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Keenan Allen Chargers receiver pulls in a tipped ball for a touchdown in the third quarter at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler struggled to gain yards against the Steelers defense at Heinz Field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers safety Derwin James intercepts a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the second quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday in Pittsburgh.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LJ Fort blocks a punt by Chargers’ Donnie Jones in the second quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Phiiip Rivers is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds during first quarter action at Heinz Field Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers cornerback Michael Davis is called for pass interference as he breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steeers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during a second quarter drive at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is held to no gain on a second quarter screen pass by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown catches a long pass over Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. in the first qurater at Heinz Field on Sunday.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“We didn’t come this far to lose.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna