Kenny Pickett made sure the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff hopes still had a heartbeat heading into Week 18.
For the second consecutive week, Pickett led a fourth-quarter game-winning drive with a gorgeous pass on the move to Najee Harris to give the Steelers a 16-13 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Pickett became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to engineer a game-winning TD pass in the final minute of the fourth quarter in back-to-back games.
“The kid’s growing before our eyes,” Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He’s making quality throws, leading us downfield. It’s really awesome, to be (24) years old and a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. You got to love the way he’s leading that offense. And he keeps growing week in and week out.”
If there were any questions about whether Pickett would be the long-term answer under center in Pittsburgh, the rookie has answered them resoundingly over the past two weeks.
“Can’t say enough about our young QB,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He smiles in the face of it. He’s always ready to be that guy in the moments that we need him to be that guy. And it’s just good to see the young guy.”
Pickett’s numbers won’t wow — 168 yards and a TD on 15-of-27 passing — but he’s avoided the big mistakes in recent weeks. The rookie showed his ability to make things happen out of the structure on Sunday night. Several of his best plays came on the move, making good throws even if they weren’t corralled.
The Steelers’ final offensive play of the game was all Pickett. The rookie avoided the rush, moved to his left, reset and fired a perfect pass to Harris, who was blanketed by Pro Bowl linebacker Roquan Smith in the end zone. It was the type of play that displayed Pickett’s potential.
“We do so many two-minute drives in practice, and you see the moxie in our quarterback,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We’ve seen our guys go out and ball out in practice all season long. We weren’t surprised.”
On the game-winning drive, Pickett completed 5 of 6 attempts for 64 yards and a TD. It marked the Steelers’ third fourth-quarter comeback with the rookie under center and the fourth game-winning drive in his young career.
“I think it’s just confidence that I had in myself is showing up on the field, and I think guys are starting to feel that, which is always good,” Pickett said. “Going into the huddle and seeing how confident everyone is, as a quarterback, you know they have a lot of belief in you, and I have a lot of belief in those guys in the huddle. So, when that is there, you definitely have a shot.”
The Steelers’ heroics in Baltimore gave them a shot at the postseason. Moving to 8-8 heading into Week 18, Pittsburgh would qualify for the postseason with a victory over the Browns, a Patriots loss to the Bills and a Dolphins loss to the Jets. While it remains a long shot for the Steelers to turn their 2-6 start into a playoff run, it’s not wild to see it happening.
The Browns played their best game under Deshaun Watson in Week 17 but aren’t exactly a scary opponent to end the season. The Dolphins have significant injury issues at quarterback and could be starting a seventh-round rookie with the postseason on the line. And the Patriots already lost to the Bills by double-digits once this season — the key might be whether Buffalo is still chasing the No. 1 seed when the game starts or elect to sit starters if their fate is wrapped up.
Whether the Steelers make the postseason or not this year, Pickett’s play down the stretch offers optimism in 2023 that the young quarterback will be leading Pittsburgh on plenty of playoff runs in the future.