The Washington Football Team had been playing markedly better since its 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. Washington was 3-3 in its past six games, with its three losses coming by a combined seven points. Even at 4-7, the NFC East was well within reach.
But none of those opponents were nearly as good as the Pittsburgh Steelers, which entered Monday evening as the 13th team in the Super Bowl era to start 11-0. It had the NFL's best defense in several categories and perhaps the best young receiving trio in the league. Its offensive line has not allowed a sack in a franchise-record five games, while no one has brought down quarterbacks more than its defense.
On paper, Washington's recent stretch of solid play would come to a halt in Pittsburgh.
But when the clock struck zero at Heinz Field, the NFL's only unbeaten team was no more. By way of a 23-17 victory, Washington handed the Steelers just their second loss in 81 tries when leading by 14-plus points at Heinz Field. Washington (5-7) has now won three games in a row and remains in contention for the division title.
Eleven days after its Thanksgiving rout of the Dallas Cowboys, Washington was sloppy in all phases of the first half Monday night.
Rookies Khaleke Hudson and James Smith-Williams committed penalties on special teams, while tight end Jeremy Sprinkle could not fall on a fumble with no one around him. Offensively, wide receivers Steven Sims Jr. and Isaiah Wright dropped passes, and the running game was nonexistent after surging rookie Antonio Gibson went out with a toe injury on the second drive and did not return.
Even the defense, which put forth a valiant effort that included an incredible goal-line stand, gave up a 50-yard touchdown from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson in the second quarter. Washington has now given up eight plays of more than 50 yards this season, and all of them have come in the first half.
But after going down, 14-0, with fewer than 100 yards of total offense, Washington created some momentum right before the break. Wide receiver Cam Sims began the possession with a 30-yard catch and run, and J.D. McKissic followed that up with an 11-yard reception. Two sacks put Washington in danger of not getting any points, but an administrative issue by the referees stopped the clock despite Washington having no timeouts. That allowed kicker Dustin Hopkins to convert a 49-yard field, a promising end to a disappointing half.
Washington received the ball to begin the third quarter, and while the drive was anything but pretty, it ended with a one-yard touchdown from short-yardage back Peyton Barber.
Sims delivered again with a 31-yard reception, as did tight end Logan Thomas, whose 30-yarder set up Washington with a goal-to-go situation. In a game when No. 1 wide receiver Terry McLaurin had two catches for 14 yards -- he entered the game with 963 -- the duo combined for 14 receptions for 190 yards and a touchdown.
Thomas' career game got even better with about nine minutes left, as Alex Smith (31-for-46 passing, 296 yards) found him down the left side for a wide-open 15-yard touchdown. What looked to be a potential blowout in the first half was suddenly a tie game.
From there, Washington made all of the plays it needed to. After allowing Pittsburgh to drive into field goal range, the defense stopped the Steelers on 4th-and-1 from the 28-yard line. On the ensuing offensive drive, Sims made a one-handed catch on 3rd-and-4. That led to Hopkins' go-ahead 45-yard field goal with 2:49 to play.