It is difficult to organize my thoughts about the game even now that almost 36 hours passed after the wild Steelers win. That was a wild game. I will always remember that after the game ended (at it was about 3:30 a.m. in Ukraine at that time), I was so worked up that I couldn't sleep. As I was quietly sitting on the couch in front of the TV, with my wife off to bed, I put the Packers-Falcons game on, and just before the half time it occurred to me that I had been staring blankly at an absolutely electrifying game between two exciting teams. That's how emotionally spent I was.
The first half was the epitome of things going the wrong way. Two fumbles, missed FG, shaky special teams play, poor protection, Flozell Adams out... Most of all, a 14-point deficit. I knew all well that the Ravens' offense wasn't all that good, with less than 100 yards gained through the first 30 minutes, and that if we took care of the ball we had a shot at coming back. But I also knew it was the Ravens' defense. Think about it, 14 points was about what were able to put on the board against them through the entire game twice this season (14 in a losing effort in October, 13 in a December win). Well, playoffs football is different.
My game ball from this win goes to Ryan Clark. Here's why.
There's no question that he's one of the more underrated players on this defense, and a big part of this is because he is in the shadow of the more flashy (by both play and appearance) Troy Polamalu. But his importance to the defense can't be overstated. The best summary of Clark's value to the team was made by - who else? - Dick LeBeau during his HOF speech back in August:
I'm going to tell you right now, Ryan Clark, who is with us right now, he's in there with that group. He's a smart football player, a good football player. Let me tell you now. Ryan has something to deal with that none of those guys had to deal with. Ryan is back there every Sunday with a guy by the name of Troy Polamalu.
I don't mean to tell you that Ryan tells Troy where to go 'cause in all honesty nobody tells Troy where to go (laughter). [...]
But Ryan sits back there and watches Troy and he tries to keep our defense balanced. He does a great job of that. It's not like he can play two or three games and say, I got it, because Troy keeps changing the script on him all the time. He likes to test him out every now and then. I wouldn't trade those two guys for anything.
This couldn't be more true. However, in this game, I thought that the two safeties' roles were reversed. Troy played a quiet one (well, really it was a poor one, with just two tackles and at least as many missed all-important ones), and generally stayed deep in coverage. I am not sure whether it was by design (to help the coverage in the middle) or by necessity (because of the injury - I noted that Clark and Polamalu temporarily switched roles in the second half of the Cincy game in December, when Troy aggravated his ankle injury). But in any event, Clark stepped in Troy's shoes admirably, stayed close to the line of scrimmage a lot, made two excellent tackles for loss or no gain, and, of course, made two of the most important plays in the 2nd half comback by the Steelers - forced the Ray Rice fumble and picked off Flacco's pass. Yeah, Clark almost took Ike Taylor out of the game early and let Todd Heap get away on his TD pass, but neither play was Clark's mistake. I am very happy that Clark, who is one of my favorite Steelers, was such a big part of this history piece.
Among other thoughts from this game, I believe that the officiating was horrible. It wasn't against the Steelers as such, it was just plainly horrible. The lowlights were the unnecessary roughness to Hines Ward only on the first drive of the game and a no-call on Suggs' (?) hit on Ben Roethlisberger at the knees that immediately preceded the weird sack-fumble-wait-TD by the Ravens. You will remember that they showed Ben visibly hobbled after that play, with announcers immediately pointing it out, and the replays showed that it was painfully close to the Kimo von Oelhoffen/Carson Palmer situation 5 years ago. I honestly believe that that was a big part why the entire Steelers team stood and looked at Ben after he was stripped by Suggs - Ben was sacked and hit hard again, they must have been concerned if he was OK (add to that that the ball flew forward and it looked like an incomplete pass). How is that not a 15-yard penalty is beyond me.
Now the Jets come to town. The first thing I think about is history (even though it is meaningless), and I see two sides there. One, is that the Jets are very reminiscent of the 2005 Steelers. An 11-5 #6 seed, with a second-year unproven QB who, in any case, led the team to the AFCCG in his rookie year, who one two road games already, and winning the divisional round over a team that beat them up badly in the regular season... So much in common it is actually scary.
But there's also a different side of history, as the 2010 Steelers look like the 2008 themselves. A 12-4 second seed, winning their home game in the divisional round and watching as the No.6 seed upsets the top-seeded team to give the Steelers a home AFCCG (in 2008 the Ravens took out the top-seeded Titans).
It will be a great game in any case. We will see if Polamalu makes a difference compared to last time the Jets were here, and we will see if Aaron Smith is able to get back. Jets can become only the second team to beat the Steelers twice at Heinz Field in the same season (to 2007 Jaguars), and the Steelers can become the first team ever to advance to its eighths Super Bowl.
And let's just say that I will be very sleepy (and hopefully - very happy) next Monday morning.
P.S. I would be inappropriate if I didn't mention the crazy Ben to Antonio Brown pass. My key thought from that play is that Brown showed that he is ridiculously smart - he made that circus catch, grabbing the ball and pressing it against the helmet. He had the presence of mind to maintain it there for a couple of strides, so that the refs saw that he had possession, and only then picked it with his hand and stretched it forward as he was falling out of bounds. This was a veteran play!