Pittsburgh had been the N.F.L.’s final unbeaten team at 11-0 before losing at home to a sub-.500 team.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins can exhale again after the last undefeated team this season, the Steelers, had their run ended by the Washington Football Team, whose defense made key stops late in the game to win, 23-17, on Monday night in Pittsburgh.
The loss prevented the Steelers (11-1) from matching the 1972 Dolphins, the only team to complete a perfect season by winning a Super Bowl. More immediately, it prevented them from qualifying for the playoffs and locked them in a tie with the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champion, for the best record in the A.F.C. with four games remaining. This season, only the team with the best record in the conference will receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs, instead of the top two teams.
The Steelers plowed through the first 10 games of the season thanks to a stout defense and the revival of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who sat out most of last season because of injury. While they dominated only a handful of games, the Steelers were off to the best start in the franchise’s 87-year history and appeared to have a chance to complete the N.F.L.’s first undefeated regular season since 2007, when the New England Patriots went 16-0 before eventually losing the Super Bowl to the Giants.
But last week, the Steelers barely beat the short-handed Ravens in a game that was rescheduled three times because of a coronavirus outbreak among Baltimore’s personnel, leading Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin to criticize his team’s offense. And on Monday, in a game that was also pushed back as a result of the schedule changes in Week 12, the Steelers blew the 14-point lead they built in the first half and were unable to stop Washington’s offense, which scored four times in the second half before the defense intercepted Roethlisberger to seal the win.
“We’re getting to that point of the season when you got to be sharp in all areas,” Roethlisberger said in a news conference after the game. “There can be all kinds of distractions and changes to this, that and the other, but at the end of the day we have to play good football.”
After engineering perhaps the biggest upset of the season, Washington is now 5-7 and remains in a tie for first place in the N.F.C. East after Week 13. The Giants, who have the same record, beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the first time a team from the N.F.C. East beat an opponent with a winning record this season.
Washington has now won three consecutive games, an improbable turnaround for a team that began the season 1-5. Coach Ron Rivera replaced quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen, who each made four starts, in favor of Alex Smith, who was making a comeback of his own after undergoing 17 surgeries to repair a leg injury he sustained in 2018.
Smith, 36, threw for 296 yards and a touchdown, overcoming the loss of rookie running back Antonio Gibson, who left the game early with a toe injury. Tight end Logan Thomas, wide receiver Cam Sims and running back J.D. McKissic hauled in 24 of Smith’s 31 pass completions.
After having scored only a field goal just before halftime, Washington looked like a different team in the second half. Smith, under pressure for much of the game, led Washington down the field in the third quarter, with running back Peyton Barber scoring on a 1-yard run. Smith then hit Thomas for a 15-yard score to tie the game at 17-17.
Dustin Hopkins kicked a 45-yard field goal to put Washington up, 20-17, with 2:04 remaining. On the next possession, Roethlisberger’s pass was tipped and then intercepted by linebacker Jon Bostic. Hopkins kicked another 45-yard field goal.
Having lost their chance at perfection, Pittsburgh will now try to regroup before facing the Buffalo Bills (9-3), Indianapolis Colts (8-4) and Cleveland Browns (9-3), who all are battling for playoff spots, in three of their last four games. Tomlin said his team was looking forward to the challenge.
“We’re faced with a loss now, so now we’ll get the chance to smile in the face of it,” he said.