NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees capped a 326-yard passing performance with 2-yard touchdown to Michael Thomas with 1:25 left, and the New Orleans Saints clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs with a 31-28 victory over Pittsburgh that dealt a significant blow to the Steelers’ playoff hopes.
Pittsburgh drove into potential tying field-goal range on its final drive, but JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled when he was stripped by defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins as the receiver landed on top of his tackler. Linebacker Demario Davis recovered.
Alvin Kamara gained 105 yards from scrimmage and ran for two touchdowns for New Orleans (13-2), which rallied for the lead after two defensive stops in the fourth quarter. New Orleans ended one Steelers drive when Kurt Coleman forced Stevan Ridley’s fumble and ended another by narrowly thwarting a fake punt.
Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns for the Steelers (8-6-1), connecting 14 times with Antonio Brown for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh fell into second in the AFC North behind Baltimore and out of playoff position.
The Steelers can’t make the playoffs as a wild card, but they still would win the division with a victory next week and a loss by the Ravens. Pittsburgh’s loss also clinched a playoff spot for the AFC South-leading Houston Texans.
New Orleans went up 24-14 in the third quarter when Kamara dove over blockers at the line of scrimmage, capping a drive highlighted by his career-long 42-yard reception.
But the Steelers seized momentum back with a nine-play, 75 yard drive that included three passes to Brown, the last a 3-yard TD toss. Pittsburgh then took a 28-24 led with on its next drive, which again ended with a TD pass to Brown, who split double coverage by Coleman and Marshon Lattimore for his 20-yard score.
The Steelers briefly preserved their 4-point lead when L.J. Fort blocked Wil Lutz’s 50-yard field goal attempt with 6:16 left. But New Orleans quickly forced a fourth-and-5 and then stopped upback Roosevelt Nicks a yard short of a first down when he took the snap on a fake punt with a little more than four minutes to go.
The Saints drove for the go-ahead score with the help of a pass interference call on fourth down, marking the third Saints touchdown drive of the game aided by such a call.
The first also came on a fourth-down play in the first quarter when Joe Haden placed his hand on Kamara’s back on a pass that appeared overthrown. Pittsburgh complained about the flag, but to no avail, and Mark Ingram scored from a yard out for his franchise-record 50th rushing touchdown, surpassing Deuce McAllister’s mark set in 2008.
Before Lutz had a kick blocked, he made his franchise-record 26th straight field goal to close out a highlight-filled end to the first half.
Lutz’s kick was good from 43 yards less than 40 seconds after Pittsburgh drove 97 yards to tie the score.
Brown had four catches for 64 yards on the tying drive, which ended with Jaylen Samuels’ short TD catch and Eli Rogers’ reception for a 2-point conversion.
When the Saints took over, Brees completed three straight passes, the last to Kamara, who turned a short crossing route into a 31-yard gain before going out of bounds near the Steelers 25.
Lutz then surpassed the Saints mark set by Hall of Famer Morten Andersen during the 1992 and ’93 seasons.
BEN AND BROWN
Roethlisberger now has 33 TDs passing, breaking his single-season mark of 32 set in 2007 and 2014.
Brown clinched a sixth straight season with at least 100 catches — making him the only NFL receiver to do so — and six straight seasons with 1,200 yards receiving. He also has 15 touchdown catches, surpassing his career best.
Steelers: Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton was examined in the blue tent by team medical staff but returned to action. … Starting linebacker Vince Williams left the game in the second half.
Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left the game in the first half, returned to action a few series later, but then left the game again for good in the second half. After that, Andrus Peat moved to left tackle and rookie Will Clapp took over at left guard.
Steelers: Host Cincinnati on Sunday, needing a win to have any hope of advancing to the playoffs.
Saints: Finish the season at home against Carolina on Sunday.