PITTSBURGH (AP) — December. Cold. High(-ish) stakes.
In some ways, it's the same as it ever was for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Las Vegas Raiders.
Yet what was supposed to be a celebration of one of the iconic plays in NFL history and the man who authored it will be bittersweet on Saturday night when the Steelers (6-8) host the Raiders (6-8).
Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris' death on Wednesday — just two days before the 50th anniversary of “The Immaculate Reception” that gave Pittsburgh an improbable victory in the 1972 playoffs and three days before the Steelers were scheduled to retire his No. 32 — brought reality crashing into view.
“We’re all heartbroken, but we do look forward to honoring him and his legacy this weekend,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "And obviously, where our attention needs to be is on the preparation required to put together the type of performance that’s fitting of a great man like Franco.”
It's almost certainly what Harris would have wanted. When the NFL put the schedule together last spring, it was with an eye toward history and the hope that both teams would still have something to play for.
They do, but just barely. Pittsburgh has won three of four to keep its wafer-thin postseason hopes alive. The Raiders enter with their own scaled-down version of “The Immaculate Reception” in their bizarre game-ending walk-off victory over New England last week, when defensive end Chandler Jones grabbed an ill-advised lateral by the Patriots and raced to the end zone as time expired while his teammates stood dumbfounded on the sideline.
“It was one of the wildest endings as far as the final play that I’ve been a part of,” Las Vegas wide receiver Davante Adams said. “So, I was kind of stuck for a minute just watching.”
A feeling familiar to anyone who watched Harris race down the sideline at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 23, 1972, after catching a carom that kickstarted a dynasty and a rivalry that in a way defined the 1970s.
The rivalry will go on, even without the man who started it all with one heads-up play.
“He would want us to be focused and go out and practice hard and go get the win,” Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “So we’re definitely playing for him this week.”
BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE
Raiders coach Josh McDaniels knows he can't emulate the conditions his team will experience in Pittsburgh, where the game-day forecast calls for a high of 9 degrees Fahrenheit, a number that will likely be lower by the 8:15 p.m. EST kickoff.
“Although I asked if we could get the indoor (cold),” McDaniels said. “They said it might shut the building down if we got 10 degrees. Look, it is what it is. I’ve had the reverse, where you’re practicing in cold weather and you go south or west and you have to deal with temperatures you haven’t practiced it in three months or in two months.”
McDaniels, having coached 18 seasons in New England, said he likes the inclement weather this time of year.
“To me, this is football," he said. “I think part of this is handling the conditions, being able to play in the conditions and able to think in the conditions."
Pickett will return after sitting out last week's win over Carolina with a concussion. Pickett has made steady if not spectacular progress since being thrown into the fray at halftime of a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets.
After throwing eight interceptions in his first five games, Pickett has now gone 129 straight attempts without giving the ball away. For a team that doesn't need him to be a difference-maker — not yet — it's a start.
“I feel like (the game) has slowed down each week,” Pickett said. "Like I’ve been saying for the last couple of weeks, it’s all about playing and getting reps and I feel good with where I’m at right now.”
Las Vegas wide receiver Mack Hollins had a hand in several key plays late against New England.
Hollins caught a touchdown pass in the second quarter, and his 12-yard catch on fourth-and-10 from the Raiders 19-yard line kept alive what turned out to be the game-tying drive.
“A lot is just being good at the mundane,” Hollins said. “Do something over and over and over again. It might be two times out of that 80 (plays) you're the focal point of the play, but you don't know when those two are coming.”
Hollins also was in at safety in case the Patriots tried a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation, and he downed AJ Cole's punt at the 2 earlier in the game.
“When we're at practice, I get upset with him if I down it anywhere outside the 5-yard line,” Hollins said. “A lot of teams, the goal is inside the 10, but he's got the best leg in the league. So that 10 isn’t good enough in my mind.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL