ATLANTA — Ben Roethlisberger stood on the Pittsburgh sideline with a white towel hanging around his neck. All he could do was watch as Michael Vick and the Falcons finished off the Steelers in a game that was just too good to be settled in 60 minutes.
Remember this one. It could be a defining game for both teams this season.
Vick threw a career-high four touchdown passes and hit another long play in overtime Sunday, setting up Morten Andersen to kick a 32-yard field goal that gave Atlanta a thrilling 41-38 win that featured enough twists and turns to last an entire season.
Where to begin? Vick responded to his critics in what had been a dismal season throwing the ball. Roethlisberger was unstoppable until he got knocked out with a scary blow to the head. Hines Ward had a remarkable homecoming.
There’s more. The Falcons (4-2) though they had won in regulation on a 56-yard field goal by their No. 2 kicker, but it didn’t count. The Super Bowl champion Steelers squandered a 17-7 lead, fumbling three times and getting surprised by an onside kick in the first half.
The Falcons struck for touchdowns after every Pittsburgh miscue, hanging around in a game that could have been a blowout. Finally, after six lead changes and both teams missing chances to break a 38-38 tie in the final minute, the second-oldest player in NFL history won it for Atlanta.
‘‘We learned something about ourselves today,’’ Falcons coach Jim Mora said. ‘‘We can hang with the heavyweight champs.’’
The Steelers (2-4) tied it at 38 with 3:19 remaining when fill-in quarterback Charlie Batch threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ward, who grew up in the Atlanta area and longed to play for the Falcons.
On this day, he burned the Falcons badly, catching eight passes for 171 yards and a career-best three TDs, including a 70-yarder in which he literally ran out of his right shoe.
Even that wasn’t enough. Atlanta won the coin toss for overtime and never let the Steelers have the ball. Vick converted on third-and-9 by scrambling away from Troy Polamalu and flipping a 26-yard pass to Alge Crumpler. Five plays later, the 46-year-old Andersen came on to make the winning kick, atoning for a 52-yarder that fell just short in the final minute of regulation.
‘‘Moments like this are the main reason I’m a Mike Vick fan,’’ Mora said. ‘‘For all the talk about what Vick can’t do, I like to talk about what he can do. And he does things that no other player in the history of the game at that position has the ability to do.’’
Coming off a near-perfect first half the previous week against Kansas City, Roethlisberger was brilliant again before halftime, going 15-of-20 for 235 yards and three touchdowns. But Big Ben was knocked unconscious early in the third quarter on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Chauncey Davis after letting go of a pass.
Roethlisberger remained on the turf for at least five minutes before finally wobbling to the sideline, then got wheeled to the locker room on the back of a cart. After changing out of his uniform, he could only watch from the sideline.
Coach Bill Cowher said he wouldn’t know for a few days if Roethlisberger would be able to play next Sunday at Oakland.
It was another blow to the Steelers quarterback, his year already marred by a serious motorcycle accident and an appendectomy, and a discouraging loss for a team that seemed to get its season back on track with a 45-7 rout of Kansas City the previous week.
‘‘We left everything on the football field and I couldn’t be more proud of the group of guys,’’ Cowher said. ‘‘We’ve dug a hole for ourselves, no question. But I know the character of this football team and we’ll be back.’’
Batch did a good job in relief, throwing for 195 yards and two TDs. But he never got a chance in overtime.
Atlanta thought it won in regulation when Michael Koenen, who lost the kicking job after two games but still handles the punting and long field goals, booted through a 56-yarder with 35 seconds remaining. Cowher managed to call timeout just before the snap, however, and the officials waved off the play.
Koenen tried again and missed, but Polamalu was called for running into the kicker. The Falcons then sent on Andersen, whose try was straight down the middle but fell on the end line.
There was still time for Pittsburgh to pull out a victory. Batch delivered a 25-yard pass to Ward and the Steelers raced up to the line to down the ball with 8 seconds to go. However, receiver Nate Washington flinched ever so slightly before Batch took the snap and threw the ball into the ground, a false-start penalty that automatically led to the remaining seconds being run off the clock.
Ward slammed his helmet to the turf in disgust. The Steelers wouldn’t get the ball again.
‘‘This game was the one I wanted the most because Atlanta passed me up when I was coming out of college,’’ Ward said. ‘‘This is one I really circled on my calendar.’’
Vick was 18-of-30 for 232 yards, hooking up with tight end Crumpler on touchdowns of 22, 3 and 31 yards. Crumpler tied a team record for TD catches in a game, while Vick broke his personal mark of three scoring passes in a game, also connecting with Michael Jenkins on a 17-yarder.
The wild game rekindled memories of the last Atlanta-Pittsburgh matchup, a 34-34 overtime tie in 2002.
This time, the Falcons got to celebrate.