PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin wasn’t ready to go there, with all due respect.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach understands the symmetry between Saturday night’s 13-10 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders and a playoff victory over the same franchise 50 years ago, the one that ended with Steelers quarterback Franco Harris catching a dropped pass and sprinting into NFL history with what is universally known as “The Immaculate Reception.”
Like that game five decades and a day ago, a rookie scored the winning touchdown, this time wide receiver George Pickens on a 14-yard dart from Kenny Pickett with 46 seconds left.
However, the similarities end there. Harris’ play was named the most famous in NFL history during the league’s 100th anniversary season in 2020 and helped launch a dynasty.
What happened at the icy Acrisure Stadium on Christmas Eve 2022 was not.
“I’m not going to try to put it in that neighborhood,” Tomlin said with a laugh. “Not even in that town.”
Still, Tomlin can appreciate that Pickett, Pickens and the rest of Pittsburgh’s still incredibly young offense etched what he called a “small place in Steelers lore” by putting together an impressive late drive that kept Pittsburgh’s slim playoff hopes alive while also paying tribute to Harris.
The Hall of Fame running back died Wednesday, two days before the golden anniversary of his defining play and three days before the franchise retired his No. 32. His sudden passing turned what was supposed to be a celebration of his career into a poignant reflection on his remarkable life.
The current Steelers — all of whom were born after Harris retired in 1984 — did their best to pay tribute. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, a Penn State graduate like Harris, suggested to Tomlin during the week that the entire team show up Saturday night wearing replica Harris jerseys.
Defensive end and co-captain Cam Heyward ran onto the field waving a massive flag with Harris’ number on it. Pickett made a dummy “Franco! Franco” call during the cadence before sneaking in for a first down.
During the break, Harris’ widow, Dana Dokmanovich, and their son, Dok, joined team president Art Rooney II for a tearful ceremony that included Dokmanovich leaning into Rooney for support after he presented her with her late husband’s jersey.
“We dedicated this to Franco,” Pickett said. “Felt like he was with us tonight.”
Pickett completed 26 of 39 passes for 244 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Freiermuth caught seven passes for 66 yards and Najee Harris had 95 total yards as the Steelers (7-8) won for the fifth time in seven games.
“We’re still in the hunt,” Heyward said. “I like to think we’re just going to get better and better as the weeks go by.”
Derek Carr threw for 174 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions, the last one a floater down the middle of the field that was picked off by Cam Sutton with 29 seconds left. Pittsburgh rookie Connor Heyward ran for a first down to help the Steelers run out the clock.
The Raiders (6-9), coming off a dramatic last-game win over New England last week, reverted to form from earlier this season by dropping their eighth one-score game of the year. They could be eliminated from the playoffs by the end of the week.
– We have extracted a lot [of games] and then to lose like this when you have a chance to win, you realize you’re close, but close doesn’t really count in this league,” Las Vegas head coach Josh McDaniels said. “Obviously, I’ve got to do a better job of trying to close the gap.”
It was a gap the Raiders found themselves on the right side of for the first 59-plus minutes of the second-coldest home game in Steelers history.
Carr started briskly in 8-degree (minus-13 Celsius) weather — the coldest home game for the Steelers since 1989 — and capped a 14-play, 71-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown strike to Hunter Renfrow.
Still, the Las Vegas Steelers hung around, and Pickett — whose name was announced by Harris when Pittsburgh took him with the 20th overall pick in the 2022 draft — provided the first signature moment of what the Steelers hope will be a decorated career.
“I can’t say enough about [our young offensive players], everybody,” Tomlin said. “They showed poise and determination and made the necessary plays. We’re moving on with a really good Christmas.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.