PITTSBURGH -- Three times the Minnesota Vikings were ready to take the lead and possibly put away the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even for Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson, three times weren't nearly enough to remain perfect against a defense that not only outplayed the Vikings but outscored them.
LaMarr Woodley returned Favre's fumble 77 yards for a touchdown and Keyaron Fox ran back an interception 82 yards for another score during the closing minutes, and the Steelers turned three major defensive stands into a 27-17 victory Sunday to hand the Vikings their first loss.
Two goal-line stands helped turned the anticipated quarterback showdown between Favre and Ben Roethlisberger into a defensive duel. And the Super Bowl champion Steelers (5-2) are tough to beat in any game that's decided by defense. The Vikings (6-1) had a first down inside the Steelers 1 during the third quarter but settled for a field goal.
Woodley's return, with the linebacker huffing and puffing for the final 30 yards, was reminiscent of James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl against Arizona. The touchdown put the Steelers up 20-10 with 6:23 remaining, after the Vikings drove to the Steelers 8 and were in position to take their first lead since Peterson's 2-yard touchdown run put them up 7-3 in the second quarter.
Defensive end Brett Keisel stripped Favre of the ball as he dropped back to pass, and Woodley scooped it up to give the Steelers a seemingly secure lead. But Percy Harvin immediately came back with an 88-yard kickoff return touchdown, the second such score allowed by Pittsburgh in two games.
That gave Favre a chance to pull it out, and few quarterbacks have been as good as Favre at turning defeats into victories. The 40-year-old Favre, who had twice led the Vikings to last-gasp victories this season, couldn't pull this one out.
With Favre hitting Peterson on a 29-yard pass play, the Vikings drove to the Steelers 18 with just over a minute remaining, and their biggest victory of an improbably good season awaited. But Fox stepped in front of Favre's pass intended for Chester Taylor and returned it nearly the length of the field, with nearly every Viking except Favre in pursuit.
All Favre could do was shake his head in disbelief at missing not one, not two, but three chances to win.
The return scores were big enough, but the Steelers' best defensive stand came when they kept the momentum and the lead at 13-10 after Minnesota had a first down inside the 1 in the third quarter.
An offside penalty moved the ball a half-yard closer to the goal line. But Peterson -- held to 69 yards on 18 carries after averaging 161.5 yards in his first two games against AFC North teams -- couldn't get in on first down.
The NFL's rushing leader didn't see the ball again on the drive as Favre twice couldn't get the ball to covered receivers in the end zone. Coach Brad Childress settled for Ryan Longwell's 18-yard field goal rather than go for it on fourth down.
The Steelers' biggest crowd since Heinz Field opened in 2001 -- 65,597, or about 500 over capacity -- cheered as the Vikings went for the field goal, sensing that Minnesota's gamble to pass up a chance to take the lead might prove critical.
The Vikings still got their chances, but the game swung on two plays in which the Vikings couldn't be more secure: Favre with the ball in his hands near the goal line. Favre was better statistically than Roethlisberger -- except for the turnovers, which made all the difference.
Favre was 34 of 51 for 334 yards, while Roethlisberger was 14 of 26 for 175 yards. The Steelers won their fourth in a row despite a quiet day by their offense, which was outgained 386-259 by Minnesota.
Roethlisberger found rookie Mike Wallace on a 40-yard scoring pass as the Steelers, operating out of a no-huddle, needed barely a minute to drive 91 yards late in the first half for their lone offensive touchdown. Jeff Reed also kicked field goals of 39 and 27 yards, a week after he was cited by Pittsburgh police for several offenses a few hours after he kicked two field goals against Cleveland.
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