So that's why a lot of people were leery of Baltimore. I stated last week that I wasn't afraid of Baltimore even though they seemed like the least attractive playoff match-up of Pittsburgh's possible opponents from the Wildcard Weekend. Maybe I was just acting cocky to cover up a hidden layer of concern, but I was confident that the Steelers would win yesterday's divisional playoff game by at least two scores.
Well, I guess I was half-right. They won, but it sure was a memorable battle. One we'll be talking about around here for decades.
From the opening kickoff, it was entertaining, and the entertainment never stopped until the final whistle.
Speaking of that opening kickoff, the Steelers won the coin toss but elected to defer. And Baltimore's return man appeared to have an opening, but out of nowhere, Steelers' kicker Shaun Suisham, the anti-Jeff Reed, made a perfect form tackle and the Ravens would have to start at their own 34 yard line. Except, the play wasn't blown dead because none of the ball-carrier's body touched the grass, or at least it seemed that way, and he kept going for an additional 14 yards. So Mike Tomlin had to use one of his challenges on the very first play of the game. Initially, it looked like another one of his futile, unnecessary challenges, but after further review, the runner's elbow actually touched the ground and the Ravens really did have to start at their own 34.
On the very first play of Pittsburgh's initial possession, Hines Ward was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty after a scuffle with Ed Reed and the Steelers were backed up near the 10 yard line. But thanks to a 37 yard defensive pass interference call on a pass attempt to Mike Wallace, the Steelers were able to drive down field and scored the first points of the game on Rashard Mendenhall's 1 yard touchdown run.
I was at work for the first half of the game and was feeling really good after this. I had visions of Pittsburgh's 2001 demolition of Baltimore in the divisional round dancing in my head
But that all changed when the Ravens got the ball back. Baltimore was facing a 3rd and 15 from midfield when Steelers' safety Anthony Madison was flagged for defensive pass interference after running into Derek Mason. In my opinion, this changed the entire complexion of the first half. I really do believe that if Baltimore was forced to punt right there, we would have had that blow out I spent the entire week boldly predicting. Just a couple of plays later, Ray Rice scored on a 16 yard draw play right up the middle to tie the score at 7.
And, shortly after that, it was shades of Super Bowl XIII as the Ravens scored their 2nd touchdown in a span of 25 seconds.
Roethlisberger went back to pass and pumped two or three times trying to find an open man, and just when he was about to unleash a pass, he was hit by Terrell Suggs and the ball popped forward. Everyone just stood around. Steelers' offensive lineman Ramon Foster was standing right in front of the ball. Three or four Ravens were standing around the ball. I was watching it on the television at work and turned away to make a comment to someone because I thought the play was over. Everyone thought it was an incomplete pass, that is, except Ravens' defensive lineman Cory Redding, who scooped up the ball and ran it into the endzone. The referee never blew the whistle and when Redding crossed the goalline, the ref signaled touchdown.
Mike Tomlin opted to use his second challenge. On replay, there was no doubt it was a fumble, but since Roethlisberger pumped a couple of times, I was hoping that infamous "tuck rule" would come into play, but as everyone knows, that rule only gets enforced on special occasions. The ruling on the field was confirmed, and Tomlin was out of challenges the remainder of the game.
More importantly, the Ravens were up, 14-7, and instead of feeling confident, I was thinking, "Is this Jacksonville all over again?" The last time the Steelers lost in the postseason, it was a wildcard game at Heinz Field against the Jaguars following the 2007 season. In that game, a Saturday evening contest, mind you, the Steelers started out strong when they took the opening kickoff and drove right down the field and made it, 7-0, on Najeh Davenport's touchdown run. But thanks to many miscues by the Steelers' special teams and a few interceptions by Roethlisberger, the Jaguars would go on to score 21 unanswered points and led, 21-7, at the half.
Just moments later, my fears appeared to be realized when Rashard Mendenhall fumbled at the Steelers' 16 yardline after the ball was dislodged by his own teammate, Chris Kemoeatu. Shortly after that, Joe Flacco hit Todd Heap in the endzone, and the Ravens were ahead, 21-7. Shades of Jacksonville, indeed.
And to add to my misery, Suisham missed a field at the end of the first half and I turned the television off and closed up shop. I just wanted to go home and watch the rest of the debacle in peace.
As I was heading to my car, I thought, "well, if this is another Jacksonville, maybe the second half will be pretty entertaining and the Steelers will come back and make a game of it much like they did three years ago before falling in the final moments to the Jaguars."
And when I got into my car, my cell phone was blowing up. My girlfriend texted, "babe, I don't like this." My brother's text said, "I'm sick right now. Wow."
And for some reason, at that moment, I decided to text "Cleveland 2002" to both my brother and my girlfriend. I was determined that it wasn't over, damn it! The Steelers would come back like they did in the 2002 postseason when they were down by 17 points to the Browns.
Neither one of them knew what the hell I was talking about. And to further confuse my girlfriend, I added another text: "San Diego 2008." You see, the last time the Steelers were in the divisional playoffs, I was leaving work right as their game against the Chargers was starting. I was really nervous on the way home, and decided I didn't want to listen to it on the radio. I wanted to wait until I got home and turned on my television. And last night, I took the exact route home that I did two years ago, and again, I didn't turn on Hillgrove, Wolf and Tunch.
On my way home, my brother called me, I ignored the call because I didn't want to hear any bad news, but then he texted me and said, "finally a break!" And just a few minutes later, my girlfriend texted, "touchdown!!!!!!!!!" I knew it had to be good news because of all the exclamation points.
What sent those texts into motion was a Ray Rice fumble on a 3rd down screen pass early in the second half that the Steelers recovered at the Ravens' 23. Just a few plays later, they capitalized on that mistake when Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller on a 9-yard touchdown pass.
So, there it was, just like two years ago, right as I arrived home from work, the Steelers were down by a touchdown in their divisional playoff game. Only, this time, I was pretty happy about that. Two years ago, the first text I got regarding Pittsburgh's game against San Diego was my girlfriend telling me the Steelers were down, 7-0, very early in the first quarter. But I knew how that game had turned out and I was hoping it would be deja vu last night.
Boy was it ever! Later in the 3rd quarter, Flacco threw a horrible pass that was picked off by safety Ryan Clark (who also caused the Rice fumble) and returned it to the Ravens' 25 yard line. Moments later, on 3rd and goal from the 8, Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward on a little slant pass at the goalline, and suddenly, it was a ballgame, 21-21!
The next time the Ravens had the ball, there was a fumbled snap and Pittsburgh had it at the 23 again! It really was like the San Diego game from two years ago. I don't think the Ravens had a first down the entire 3rd quarter. I'm not sure if they had more than 2 or 3 the entire second half. It was quite a meltdown by the "road warriors."
After a curious Roethlisberger sneak on 4th and 1, the Steelers' drive stalled and they had to settle for a Suisham field goal, and took the lead, 24-21. But hey, after trailing by two touchdowns, being up by even a point would have been okay.
However, with about 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, Ladarius Webb appeared to give the Ravens the lead when he returned a punt for a touchdown, but thankfully, Baltimore was called for holding on the play. Still, though, the Ravens had the ball at the Pittsburgh 29, and eventually, first and goal inside the 10. Fortunately, on 3rd down, Anquan Boldin dropped a touchdown pass and the Ravens had to settle for three. It was 24-24 with less than 4 minutes remaining.
When Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward near mid-field to convert on 3rd down, I was feeling pretty good. But on the next play, Roethlsiberger was sacked and it was 2nd and 19. He hit rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders on the next play that would have gone for a first down, but Ed Reed and company knocked the ball out of his hands before he could secure the catch and it was 3rd and 19 with only 2:07 remaining.
I really had a bad feeling at that point. I won't lie. I feared it really was going to be like Jacksonville all over again. The Steelers had made a furious comeback and had all the momentum, but the early mistakes that they made would be too much to overcome and the Ravens were going to find a way to pull this damn game out after all.
But that's when Roethlsiberger made a pass that should once and for all put him up their with the current greats of the game. He unleashed a 58 yard bomb to rookie Antonio Brown and he couldn't have placed it any better. The ball hit Brown right in stride, but since he's a rookie and he was running wide open down the field in a playoff game against the Ravens, he had trouble with it. But unlike Limas Sweed two seasons ago, Antonio secured the ball with the help of his helmet and the Steelers had it first and goal inside the five yard line at the two-minute warning.
Pittsburgh would get five cracks at the touchdown thanks to a defensive holding call that gave the Steelers an automatic first down, and on 3rd down from the 2, Mendenhall scratched and clawed his way into the endzone, and Pittsburgh led, 31-24, with 1:33 left.
Unfortunately, Kemoeatu made a bone-head play when he dove into the pile after the touchdown and was flagged for unnecessary roughness and Pittsburgh had to kick off from their 15 yard line and the Ravens would have excellent field position near the 50. But the Steelers brought the pressure and Flacco was sacked by James Harrison, and on 4th and 18, TJ Houshmandzadeh dropped what would have been a first down and the Steelers survived and advanced!
It's amazing how quickly things turned around in the 2nd half. The Ravens defense wasn't horrible, but their offense really let them down. Baltimore only had 28 yards the entire second half, and those three quick 3rd quarter turnovers were killers. Pittsburgh only had to drive about 70 yard to score 17 of their points. I guess they beat the Ravens at their own game. The Baltimore faithful won't be forgetting about that meltdown anytime soon.
I think it's safe to say that the Steelers will have bragging rights over the Ravens for many, many years, and the entire city of Baltimore will be having nightmares about Ben Roethlisberger forever. He's to the Ravens what Elway was to the Browns. And we all know that the Ravens are the old Browns. Weird.
Interestingly, the Steelers have hosted nine playoff games at Heinz Field and in five of those games, Pittsburgh trailed by at least two touchdowns at some point. So much for homefield advantage providing a strong, dominating start.
With the win over the Ravens, Pittsburgh improves their postseason record against divisional opponents to a perfect 9-0.
Now it's onto the AFC Championship Game for the 15th time in team history, the 8th time since 1994 and the 5th time in the last 10 seasons.
I'm sure everyone will be tuning into today's big matchup between the Patriots and the Jets to see who and where the Steelers play next weekend. If the Patriots win, the Steelers will travel to Foxboro to play the Patriots for the third time in the AFC title game. If the Jets win, New York will come to Heinz Field.
Even my own personal schedule will be altered because of the playoffs. I am in a Sunday bowling league and my games always start at 7pm. Next week's AFC title game is scheduled for 6:30 and I just know my match is either going to be canceled or changed to the afternoon because everyone will want to watch the Steelers.
Also, if the Patriots win today, I'll be off next Sunday and probably have a bowling match early in the day as I nervously countdown the hours to the big playoff game.
If the Jets win today, I'll almost certainly have to work because my bosses will have tickets for the game. Not only that, but if my bowling match is set for the early afternoon, that means I'll have to pick an alternate day to "roll off" as they say in bowling.
But it's okay because I'm so happy that the Steelers won. And I'll bet the Steelers are feeling pretty good right now and probably don't care about where they play next Sunday. The way that first half went, they're all probably just happy to still be alive.
Just like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful life," some of them may even be running down the streets of Pittsburgh wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.