Every yard was earned with sweat and muscle. Every play was a battle, simultaneously a contest of raw, animalistic will and detailed, coordinated strategy. This was not a game for the fantasy nerds, nor was it a ballet in pads.
This was football, and football at its finest.
Coaches talk endlessly about the need for their team to play four quarters of ball. As a fan, I want four quarters to cheer for. I don't want to see teams playing at half speed to wind down the clock. I want to be on the edge of my seat the entire way, my voice hoarse from cheering and shouting.
Through the last decade, the Steelers and Ravens have developed the best rivalry in sports. Their best games are like this last battle in Heinz field: exhilarating, emotional nail-biters. The victories are so sweet because they've been earned, because they were never taken for granted.
However, because the wins are so emotional, the losses are crushing.
There's a lot I'm angry about from this game. Some scenes have been stewing in my head since the game clock wound down, and will be stewing until the inevitable rematch. Before going into any specifics, however, I'll say this first: good fans, like good teams, are gracious in defeat. To the Baltimore team as a whole, to their organization, to their fans, I say good game. Let's do this again sometime. You busy in January?
A New Low: Officiating.
I can't even condense all of my frustration and anger into one paragraph, so I'm planning to write a second article this week after the league announces their fines. Not every flag, of course, was wrong; Ryan Clark made a bad decision, and cost the team 15 yards. It enraged me, however, to see Hines Ward standing helmetless on the sideline because of a bad decision by Ray Lewis. The officials have to call it both times, no excuses. The inconsistent pass interference calls were ridiculous. And how in the world can the reviewing staff look at two catches - both made sliding across the ground, with the ball bouncing loose - and conclude that one was a catch, and one wasn't?
Questionable: Coaching Decisions.
The play of the Steelers secondary has been a bright spot this season, but they came up lacking at crucial moments in the game. Didn't this same defense shut down Tom Brady last week? Not only did they give up the game-winning touchdown, they also allowed Flacco to convert 12 third downs through the air. The problem, to my mind, comes from a mismatch. Gay struggles too much playing with fast, tall receivers on the outside. The best decision for the future is to put Keenan Lewis on the outside, and reserve Willie Gay for the nickel position, which he plays very well.
Speaking of coaching decisions, Tomlin's taken responsibility for the delay of game penalty against the field goal unit late in the game. Coaches need to lead by example; sometimes, it's best to make a quick decision based on gut and instinct. Being decisive - either way - would have been better than taking a penalty for not making a decision.
Hope For the Future: The Steelers Depth Chart.
Many people are only going to judge this game by the Raven's 92 yard drive at the very end. Throughout the game, however, we saw some great performances from players who haven't quite made a name for themselves in this organization. Jericho Cotchery made some veteran moves out there. David Johnson had a fantastic catch and run; here's to hoping that some of Heath's consistency rubs off on him. Jason Worilds was no Lamarr Woodley, but he performed well and showed a lot of promise.
Playing out of their Damn Minds: The Offensive Line.
I have never seen a Ravens-Steelers game where Big Ben was protected so well. Without the boneheaded interception, Terrell Suggs wouldn't even be on the stats chart. This offensive line has finally come together. They found some holes for Mendenhall, which is no mean feat against the Ravens. They kept Ben upright, and they (mostly) avoided yellow flags. I'm thinking of Max Starks here...did I mention that I'm angry at the officiating?
Maturing and Performing: Antonio Brown.
Two 100+ yard games in a row for the young #84. Mike Wallace might be way behind schedule in his quest for 2000 yards, but the play of Antonio Brown should start pulling coverage away from Wallace.
On a lighter note, how much do you think Brown is going to get in Wallace's ear for that touchdown reception where Wallace snagged the ball right in front of him?
The Man, the Myth, the Monster: James Harrison.
Eight tackles. Three sacks. One forced fumble. James Harrison played his best game of the season coming off of a month-long injury. He'll need to keep working on his conditioning, but his technique, aggression, and awareness are all at a Pro Bowl level. Good things are sure to come when Woodley returns; here's to hoping that we get to see the Steelers' two-headed monster dismantle the Bengals next week. Deebo, it's good to see you back.
Conclusion: Giving Yourself a Chance or Giving Up.
If the Steelers had been allowed to pick whether they wanted to lose to the Patriots or the Ravens, they'd have picked the Patriots. Getting swept by the Ravens hurts. It's always better to control your own destiny, to know that your own efforts are going to dictate whether or not you make it to the playoffs.
That bird has flown, however, and the Steelers have to adjust their mentality accordingly. This is the time for Mike Tomlin to earn his paycheck. If his team keeps performing, they can be reasonably sure of a wildcard ticket to the playoffs. If the Ravens drop a couple games - and the Ravens have already suffered a couple of puzzling losses, and barely won some others - the Steelers might still have a shot at the division. The season isn't over unless the team decides it's over. From here out, it's a mental game.
Next week, expect another tough game. The Bengals are itching to prove that they're for real this season, and are going to smell blood in the water. The Steelers are coming off of an emotionally and physically exhausting pair of games, and if they start making excuses instead of making plays, they could easily drop another step behind in the divisional race.
I don't see the Steelers losing, though. Some teams fall apart when they get backed into a corner. Some teams get more dangerous when they're bruised and humbled. I believe the 2011 Steelers are one of the dangerous teams. They proved this last Sunday that week one was a fluke, that they're still a tough, physical, skilled team that can compete with the best in the business.