NEW ORLEANS — Quarterback Drew Brees found a receiver who hadn’t played most of the season to sustain a late touchdown drive. The Saints’ defense found a way to force two fumbles in the fourth quarter. And New Orleans’ punt-return unit stopped a fake punt less than a yard short of a conversion that might have helped Pittsburgh protect a late lead.
Combine that with some good fortune on decisions by the officials, and it added up to a third straight fourth-quarter comeback for the Saints, who’ll finish the regular season with the best record in the NFC.
Brees capped a 326-yard passing performance with 2-yard touchdown toss to Michael Thomas with 1:25 left, Sheldon Rankins stripped JuJu Smith-Schuster in the final minute, and the Saints clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs with a 31-28 victory over the Steelers that dealt a significant blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.
“That’s one thing these guys have done a good job with, coming up with plays when we needed it. We’ve won a lot of different ways this year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after New Orleans (13-2) reached 13 victories for the third time since he became coach in 2006. “I’m proud of this team. Man, they’ve showed a great resolve — dealt with injuries, dealt with all the adversity you might have in a long season.”
Pittsburgh drove into potential tying field-goal range on its final drive, but Smith-Schuster fumbled while landing on Rankins after a short reception and linebacker Demario Davis recovered.
“One thing you know about this team is we’re resilient,” Rankins said.
Alvin Kamara gained 105 yards from scrimmage and ran for two touchdowns for New Orleans. Receiver Tedd Ginn Jr., playing for the first time since Week 4, caught a 25-yard pass on third-and-20 during the Saints’ go-ahead series.
The late rally came after New Orleans kept it close with two crucial fourth-quarter stops. Safety Kurt Coleman forced Pittsburgh’s first fourth-quarter turnover when he stripped Stevan Ridley and defensive end Alex Okafor recovered in Saints territory.
The Steelers briefly preserved their four-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 4th-and-5 and then stopped upback Roosevelt Nix 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.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I like the play.”
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 could still win the division with a victory next week and a loss by the Ravens. Their path to a wild card is unlikely at best because it would require Indianapolis and Tennessee to tie. Pittsburgh’s loss also clinched a playoff spot for the AFC South-leading Houston Texans.
Brett Martel is an Associated Press writer.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Saints-clinch-NFC-s-top-seed-hurt-Steelers-13488172.php.