By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger didn’t want to use the word “crossroads.” He did anyway.
His team mired in a three-game losing streak and with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the other sideline Sunday — a sight that typically signals doom for Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers — the longtime quarterback understood his team’s enigmatic season had reached a tipping point.
“Are we going to step up and play? Are we going to divide each other? Who knows?” Roethlisberger said after a taut 17-10 victory. “This was going to be a great challenge for us against a team that is always one of the best. I thought we answered the bell today.”
In so many ways.
Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels ran for a season-high 142 yards in his second NFL start. The defense that looked so vulnerable in the late going during Pittsburgh’s recent slide figured out a way to slow Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Embattled kicker Chris Boswell drilled a critical 48-yard field goal in the final minutes, and the Steelers (8-5-1) gave their playoff hopes a welcome jolt.
“I knew it was a big game, it was a redemption game for last year,” said Samuels, a senior at North Carolina State last fall when Pittsburgh collapsed late in a loss to the Patriots. “I just wanted to go out there and give them my all.”
Forced into action with James Conner missing his second straight game due to a sprained left ankle, Samuels said he’s never been a feature back. Funny, the fifth-round pick considered a bit of a project certainly looked like one against New England (9-5). Samuels ran 19 times and caught two passes for 30 yards, including a leaping 20-yard grab on third-and-9 on Pittsburgh’s penultimate possession that helped set up Boswell’s field goal.
“I was just staying relaxed, didn’t want to stay too tensed up,” Samuels said. “Just do what I do. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game … it was a pretty good outcome.”
One that helped Pittsburgh preserve its half-game lead over Baltimore (8-6) in the AFC North with two weeks to go. It also exorcised some demons. The Steelers had dropped five straight to New England and only beaten Brady twice in his storied career. Despite never trailing, their third win over him wasn’t assured until Morgan Burnett knocked down Brady’s heave to the end zone intended for Julian Edelman with 20 seconds to go.
“It’s a big win for us,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s that time of year. We need to win this football game.”
Roethlisberger threw for 235 yards with two first-half touchdowns and two interceptions. Boswell, who has struggled so badly this season the team held open tryouts during the week in search of a possible replacement, atoned for a 32-yard miss in the third quarter by drilling a 48-yarder with 2:30 remaining that provided the final margin.
“He’s our kicker from start to finish and I liked that way he came back and banged that next opportunity, and that’s what this thing is about,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You are going to be tested, we are going to be tested. Sometimes you are going to fail, but you better pass enough of them.”
A victory would have given the Patriots their 10th straight AFC East title. While they still have two shots at it while finishing the regular season at home, the road issues don’t appear to be going away. New England finished 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, the first time the Patriots have a losing road record since 2009.
“We haven’t played very well on the road,” Brady said. “Obviously what we’re doing isn’t good enough.”
Brady finished 25 of 36 for 279 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Pittsburgh held tight end Gronkowski to two receptions for 21 yards. Brady flung a jump ball to Gronkowski deep in Pittsburgh territory midway through the fourth quarter that was picked off by cornerback Joe Haden, just Brady’s fifth pick in 14 games against the Steelers.
“I was just trying to flick it out of bounds,” Brady said. “Didn’t want to take a sack. It shouldn’t have happened.”
The uncharacteristically sloppy Patriots were flagged 14 times for 106 yards, including a handful of offensive holding calls that blunted momentum. The Patriots had a second-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 11 with 37 seconds to go when right guard Shaq Mason was hit with a holding penalty that pushed the ball back to the Pittsburgh 21. The Patriots would get no closer.
“There’s holding on every play in the NFL,” Brady said. “It’s what we do, we hold. … If they’re calling it, we’ve got to do a little bit less of it.”
HE SAID IT
“Sometimes you got to cut your eyelids off when you want to blink when it gets thick, and we talk openly about that.” Tomlin when talking about his team’s ability to deal with adversity.
Patriots: Host Buffalo next Sunday. New England is unbeaten at home this season (6-0).
Steelers: Visit New Orleans next Sunday. Pittsburgh’s last road victory against the Saints came in 1990.