Stewart, benched last
The Packers (6-3) rallied to score the final 20 points, but were outrushed 144-39 to fall two games behind Minnesota in the NFC Central.
"How big was this? This was huge," said Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, who ran for 100 yards for the seventh straight time on a Monday night. "If we lose, we're two games behind (in the AFC Central). This was what we needed."
Especially for Stewart, who emerged from a season-long slump.
Pumping his fists and leaping with joy like a school kid on a playground with every perfectly thrown pass, Stewart ran for a touchdown, threw an 8-yard TD pass to Charles Johnson and set up a third score with a 45-yard throw to rookie Hines Ward in his best game in nearly a year.
And that was only the first half.
"We haven't been coming out throwing, but we felt we had to do it because their offense is so potent," receiver Courtney Hawkins said. "Whad to keep their offense off the field."
Stewart was 15-of-22 for 231 yards and no interceptions in his most dominating performance since throwing for three touchdowns and running for two in a December victory over Denver. Since then, he had eight touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 12 games, forcing Cowher to continually defend his decision to keep playing him.
"Our players are not robots. We tried to tell them this man was capable of great things," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. "He has been faltering all season but he is capable of doing much more. It's hard to get them to believe that."
Stewart looked nothing like the hesitant, unconfident quarterback whose poor play was threatening to unravel the Steelers' season and leave them challenging only for a wild card spot.
Instead, the Steelers (6-3) stayed within a game of AFC Central leader Jacksonville (7-2) with two games left against the Jaguars.
"It's a big game, the biggest of the season. We couldn't afford to lose," said cornerback Carnell Lake, who played despite a severely sprained right ankle.
And now the Packers (6-3) are in a precarious situation, just a week after a 36-22 victory over San Francisco pulled them within a game of Minnesota.
"We tried to match their intensity but we couldn't," Holmgren said. "But there is so quit in this team, and we battled back at the end. If we had gotten the ball back one more time, who knows what would have happened?"
The Packers' second Monday night
| Brett Favre eludes Kevin Henry to complete a pass in the first half, but the Packers could not escape Pittsburgh with a comeback victory. (AP) |
But the Packers, who displayed a playoff-like intensity against the 49ers, came off flat and overcautious, and they didn't begin playing like two-time defending NFC champions until it was too late.
Reggie White, who manhandled the 49ers' offensive line in the Packers' nine-sack performance last week, had only one sack, and it didn't come until the Steelers led 27-0.
That defensive play got the Packers' offense going. Favre drove them 74 yards for Raymont Harris' 2-yard TD run and a 2-point conversion pass to Antonio Freeman that made it 27-17 with 4:52 remaining.
The desperate Packers then recovered an onside kick, but stalled at the Steelers' 19 and Ryan Longwell kicked a 37-yard field goal with 2:40 to go.
Green Bay then tried another onside kick, but Steelers tight end Mark Bruener recovered at the Packers' 41, allowing Pittsburgh to run out the clock and Bettis to hit 100 yards on a 34-carry night.
Favre's number's looked good - 22-of-39 for 234 yards and an interception - but most of the yards came in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had dominated until then, outgaining the Packers 274-72 in the first half while outrushing them 105-16.
The Steelers, who have never lost consecutive home games since Cowher took over in 1992, surprised the Packers by uncharacteristically coming out throwing on their first possession, when they normally try to get Bettis going.
Six plays into the drive, Stewart found Hawkins two steps behind Craig Newsome in single coverage for a 53-yard completion - Stewart's second longest of the season. Two plays later, Stewart fooled the Packers by looking to his left, then wheeling and throwing to his right to a wide-open Johnson for the touchdown.
Green Bay then drove to the Steelers' 25 as Favre ducked three pass rushers to improvise a 26-yard throw to Freeman, but the drive stalled and Longwell missed a 51-yard field goal - his first miss in 13 tries this season.
Stewart, obviously encouraged by his early success, came out throwing again on the Steelers' second possession to hit Hawkins for 8 yards and Johnson for 11. Then, with White tugging at his ankle, Stewart took off running on a 30-yard scramble to the Packers' 3 that he punctuated with half a back flip along the sidelines.
Stewart then vaulted over 350-pound nose tackle Gilbert Brown on a 1-yard touchdown run that made it 14-0 - something neither team could have expected. Until Monday, the Steelers had scored only 16 first-quarter points to Green Bay's 73.
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