John Harbaugh's surprise onside kick a bit puzzling

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers pulled out a 19-16 victory over Baltimore on Sunday--the ninth three point contest between the two AFC North combatants since 2008. Ravens coach John Harbaugh's decision to go for a surprise onside kick early in the fourth quarter back-fired, and one could argue that it was the difference in the game.

Quarterback Joe Flacco led his team to last minute victories at Heinz Field in two of the previous three seasons, and on Sunday, when the Steelers let Baltimore hang around thanks to a fumble by Heath Miller at the end of the first half and a failure by the offense to capitalize on a premium touchdown opportunity early in the second half, I thought, "Oh no."

What could have been a 20-3 lead and a bit of a laugher, was your typical 13-6 slug-fest between the two AFC North combatants--in other words, it was exactly the kind of game this rivalry is known for.

And when Justin Tucker connected on a 32 yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to bring Baltimore to within four points at 13-9, I really did have a sinking feel.

Flacco had played pretty pedestrian up to that point, only able to orchestrate three field goal drives, but like a lot of talented quarterbacks, when his team got the ball back again, he was able to muster up just enough to lead a 16 play, 73 yard drive that consumed eight minutes of the fourth quarter and culminated in a one yard scoring strike to tight end Dallas Clark with 1:58 remaining.

Flacco did it again! The Ravens were going to win the game, 16-13, and Pittsburgh's flickering playoff hopes were about to flicker away for good......hold that thought.

Before the Flacco to Clark touchdown transpired, there was the matter of that surprise onside kick Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh attempted following Tucker's field goal.

The Steelers recovered at the Baltimore 43 yard line, and thanks to a penalty tacked on at the end of the play, which ultimately would have nullified any surprise recovery, anyway, Ben Roethlisberger and Co. got to set up shop at the 38. Six plays later, Shaun Suisham, about as hot as any kicker in recent memory, had to boot a 38 yard field goal to restore Pittsburgh's seven point margin.

So, instead of trying to overcome a three-point deficit in the final two minutes, Roethlisberger only had to overcome a 16-16 tie as he led his offense on a seven play, 39-yard drive that culminated in Suisham's 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

Instead of Suisham's field goal only tying the game and sending it into overtime, it sent everyone home.

Instead of maybe a bit more nerves by everyone involved on the Steelers' field goal unit as they tried to execute their assignments while playing from behind, they could all do their jobs with a mind-set of: "Oh well, if we don't make it here, at least we'll have overtime."

Hindsight is obviously 20/20, and maybe Harbaugh based his decision to try an onside kick on Pittsburgh's tendencies in those situations (that had to be it). And who's to say the Steelers wouldn't have answered Tucker's field goal with one of their own (or an 80 touchdown run by Le'Veon Bell) even if Harbaugh  had opted for the traditional kickoff.

But in a rivalry that traditionally is decided by three points (now nine of the last 11 and throw in a four-point spread for good measure) it seemed rather curious that Harbaugh would risk giving the Steelers three free ones at such a critical point in the game.

If the Steelers go on to make  the kind of history we're all hoping for, we can point to that surprise onside kick as maybe a big reason why.

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