PITTSBURGH -- While many were busy writing the postmortem for Ben Roethlisberger's career, the 38-year-old quarterback penned an improbable chapter with the largest comeback of his career.
Roethlisberger helped the Steelers (12-3) climb out of a 17-point hole as the offense scored 21 unanswered points in 11 minutes.
The deluge began with a 39-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson with 3:06 to go in the third quarter, continued on a five-yard toss to tight end Eric Ebron, and finished with the game-winning 25-yard strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 7:43 to play. Through most of the second half, the Steelers went no-huddle, an up-tempo strategy that's often worked to get them out of a slump this season.
"A lot of the second half was that, just changing the tempo, trying to get guys balls, looks, things like that," Roethlisberger said. "I think it was successful because guys made plays. We were able to convert, keep the tempo going."
After a dismal first half, Roethlisberger completed 23 of 29 attempts for 244 yards and three scores in the second.
"I've been watching Ben like you guys have for 17 years, man," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Half a [game] is not going to define him. He's a competitor. As long as there's time on the clock, he's going to keep coming at you."
With the win, Roethlisberger is 3-24 in his career when trailing by 17-plus points, and the 17-point comeback is the largest comeback of his career, matching 2017 Week 13 at the Bengals and 2015 Week 15 against the Broncos.
Sunday marked the first time the club won when trailing by at least 17 points in the second half with Mike Tomlin as head coach. It was the first time since 2002 -- and just the fifth time in franchise history -- the Steelers came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to win.
The Steelers clinched their first AFC North title since 2017, but more importantly, they halted a three-game skid and avoided becoming the first team in league history to lose four consecutive regular-season games after an 11-0 start.
"We've got some big battles that lie ahead, man," Tomlin said. "But today we're humbled and honored to be AFC North champs. When we started this journey on July 20, that was the initial goal, then we go from there. It's good to be at this point, good to push forward."
While the second-half Steelers looked like the team that had paced the NFL with a historic start, the first-half performance more closely resembled that of the group that fell behind 17-0 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.
Roethlisberger rebounded to finish 34-of-49 for 342 yards and three touchdowns, but he started out 11-of-20 for 98 yards in the first half. The Steelers' first half looked suspiciously like their first-half debacle in Cincinnati, as they dug themselves in a 21-7 hole by halftime.
After preaching about the urgency to start fast all week, the Steelers went three-and-out on their first drive thanks to three incompletions from Roethlisberger. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers and rookie running back Jonathan Taylor marched down the field on their first drive and Taylor punched it in from 6 yards out to score the first opening-drive touchdown against the Steelers all season.
The Steelers answered with a James Conner touchdown courtesy of a forced fumble by TJ Watt and a return to the 3-yard line by Mike Hilton, but the offense went dormant for the rest of the half after that. The Colts, meanwhile, added two more scores on another Taylor touchdown and a deep bomb from Rivers to Zach Pascal for 42 yards just before halftime. The Colts then didn't let up immediately after halftime, scoring a 28-yard field goal on their first drive of the third quarter.
The Steelers' defense helped the team regain momentum by forcing the Colts to punt three straight times after the field goal followed by a Hilton interception.
The Steelers sacked Rivers five times.
Meanwhile, Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on three consecutive drives in the second half for the first time since Week 10 in 2018 against the Panthers. He also didn't have an interception -- something that had frequently doomed the Steelers during their three-game losing streak.
"Just believing in each other, believing that we can make plays," Roethlisberger said, explaining the second-half turnaround. "That's what we needed in the second half, was guys to step up, make the tough catches, block. We just have little things here and there, little [mental errors], little mistakes. In the second half, it just felt like we were able to kind of get into a rhythm, convert first downs and put drives together. I think that's one of the biggest things that is helpful to both us and our defense."
The Steelers didn't fix all their problems -- the run game had a season-low 20 yards -- but they fixed enough to pull ahead by four points in the fourth quarter with Roethlisberger's strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone. It could be enough to put the Steelers back on the right track just before the playoffs.
"You feel it in the locker room," Roethlisberger said. "You feel the energy. Winning can do amazing things for people and for teams. That was our first goal, and our first step today was winning this football game."
With the win, the Steelers could opt to rest their starters against the Browns next week with eyes on the playoffs, but Tomlin wasn't thinking that far ahead immediately after clinching the AFC North crown.
"We'll ponder those possibilities in the morning," he said. "Tonight, we're going to wear our hats and T-shirts."