Well, what can I say? This is normally the time of year when I make fun of the Baltimore Ravens for failing to win the one or two games during the regular season that would have enabled them to secure a division title and the very important first round bye. The difference in a first round bye and a wild card seed often comes down to a key play or drive during the course of the season, and Ray Lewis & Co., despite having their fair share of success, have stumbled in key moments in the past that have forced them to the road come playoff time. I always mock Baltimore for having to go on the road all throughout the playoffs in-order to get to the Super Bowl, and over the past decade, that postseason obstacle has proven to be too much for the Ravens to overcome.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been the team that has stood in the way of the Ravens gaining premium playoff footing over the years. It was always the Steelers who made the key plays at the key moments in the pivotal Steelers/Ravens clashes that proved to be the difference in the AFC North rivalry. For instance, Ben Roethlisberger's memorable drive against the Ravens in a game towards the end of the 2008 season that culminated with his Hoodini-like scramble and pass to Santonio Holmes for a touchdown that clinched the AFC North crown and a bye. Just last year, the division title came down to one, swift chop by Troy Polamalu as he stripped the football away from Joe Flacco late in a game in Baltimore. This pointed the way to a crucial Steelers victory, and ultimately, a division title and a first round bye, and the wild card Ravens had to travel to Pittsburgh for the divisional playoffs in mid-January.
Well, in 2011, the fortunes were reversed, and even though, like last year, both teams finished with the same 12-4 record, the AFC North title came down to one drive in early November at Heinz field. Like Big Ben in '08, Joe Flacco, the much maligned signal caller of the Ravens, was the difference as he led the Ravens on a 92 yard drive that culminated in his game-winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with precious seconds remaining.
That drive proved to be too much to overcome for the Steelers, and today, the Baltimore Ravens are the AFC North champions, they have the bye, and they have the premium playoff position.
It's normally the Ravens who must open up the playoffs on the road against an inferior opponent, and to their credit, they always get the job done. Ultimately, however, the extra postseason game they must play has always proved to be too much for them.
Well, this postseason, Baltimore isn't in that position. It's the Steelers who are heading to the playoffs as a 5th seed despite their 12-4 record. Instead of taking a week off to rest some of their injured stars and perfect their sputtering offensive attack, they must fly to Denver to take on an 8-8 Broncos team on Sunday evening in the first round of the playoffs. Will Big Ben's high ankle sprain heal enough for him to be effective? Will the high altitude prove to be too much of a danger to his unique health situation to allow safety Ryan Clark to play? These are just two of the uncertainties that the Pittsburgh Steelers face this morning simply because of one drive in early November. The Ravens made the plays when they had to, and the Steelers could not.
So, congratulations, Ravens. You are the AFC North champions, and you will be sitting at home next week watching the Steelers work their tails off to try to get to where you already are--the divisional round of the playoffs.
But, much like the Monday morning following that heartbreaking 92 yard drive, I'm still not willing to concede anything just yet. It's one thing for a team to put itself in a premium playoff position, it's quite another to take advantage of it.
And the Steelers traveling to Baltimore to take on the Ravens for a third time seems too inevitable not to happen.
If the two teams do meet again in January, and Baltimore makes the crucial plays at the end to send Pittsburgh packing, well, I'll have no choice but to concede.
But the beauty of postseason football is it can erase so many things. And if Pittsburgh defeats the Ravens in the postseason, nothing that happened in the regular season will mean a thing--not the 35-7 blowout in week one, not the last second victory in early November, not the AFC North crown, nothing. A team like the Steelers, with what they've accomplished over the past six seasons, will always have a puncher's chance in the postseason. And until the Ravens can truly survive a playoff match-up with Pittsburgh, only then will a victory really mean something.
But, for now, congratulations, again, Baltimore. See you in a few weeks