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Steelers start strong and finish stronger to win AFC North crown in a 39-38 thriller

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In the most exciting game of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers came roaring back in the final quarter to defeat the Ravens after trailing by 11 in the third quarter.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that seemed all but lost after three quarters of play, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again dug down deep before a delirious Heinz Field crowd to show the football world why they’re 11-2 and undefeated in eight consecutive games. When the Black-and-gold took an early 14-0 lead, somehow you just knew it wouldn’t last in a Steelers-Ravens matchup. And while the Steelers’ defense grabbed an early Sean Davis interception to halt Baltimore’s first drive of the game, you knew that wouldn’t last either.

Sure enough, it didn’t take long for No. 28 to morph from hero to goat, as he allowed Ravens’ wide receiver Chris Moore to get behind him for a too-easy touchdown on a 30-yard pass from Joe Flacco midway through the second quarter. Then, on the Ravens’ final drive of the first half, the Steelers’ defense put up little resistance, missing tackles and ultimately surrendering an 18-yard TD run by Baltimore running back Alex Collins, who finished the evening with 120 yards on 18 carries, good for a 6.7-yard average per carry.

Steelers Nation already knew about the Black-and-gold’s shortcomings in pass coverage, but it was this 5-play, 85-yard drive by the Ravens, late in the first half, which confirmed the unwelcome message that Pittsburgh’s defense simply isn’t the same without its playmaker and leader, Ryan Shazier. The Ravens were so effective running the football that it perked up their normally pedestrian passing game which accounted for a total of 269 yards and a 13.4-yard average per catch.

If you didn’t see the game and someone had related these facts, you’d surmise that the Steelers came out on the losing end — and they almost did. But on the offensive side of their ledger, Pittsburgh did exactly what fans had been anticipating all season long. Led by the incomparable Ben Roethlisberger (506 yards and two TDs), who became the first quarterback in NFL history to notch three games of at least 500 yards passing, the Steelers unleashed a fearsome barrage of big plays that left Baltimore’s highly-regarded defense utterly shell-shocked.

Antonio Brown continued to savage NFL secondaries, grabbing 11 receptions for 213 yards and a 19.4-yard average per catch. As outstanding as Brown’s effort was, though, we have to put a big, black-and-gold star next to the name of Jesse James, Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver for the game with 9 catches for 91 yards and a 10.1-yard average per catch. While Vance McDonald grabbed four passes for 52 yards before being sidelined with yet another injury, it was the outlaw James who seized the moment, making the clutch catches that sustained crucial Steelers’ drives. In the process, James showcased surprising speed and toughness in traffic which not everyone believed he had. More than in any other game this season, James’ performance against the Ravens seemed to represent a coming-of-age for No. 81 as an NFL tight end. At the very least, James has made a strong claim to be considered as the Steelers’ No. 1 player at the position.

As for Le’Veon Bell, he showed once again that he’s a lethal, two-dimensional threat from the running back position. While notching only 13 carries for 48 yards and a 3.7-yard average, Bell nevertheless scored two rushing TDs while adding 77 yards as a receiver on nine catches. No. 26 continues to play an invaluable role as the catalyst who makes everything else about Pittsburgh’s offense so much better.

The Steelers’ kicking game was rock-solid as well, with Chris Boswell notching a perfect 4-for-4 game, hitting field goals from 52, 43 and 24 yards, plus the 46-yard game-clincher. Jordan Berry continued to kick the stuffing out of punts, booting three for a total of 141 yards and a 47-yard average.

And let’s give another black-and-gold star to Roosevelt Nix who took a brief break from knocking Ravens defenders into next week to show good hands and a remarkable nose for the ball by catching a 1-yard pass for a crucial TD during the Steelers’ torrid, fourth-quarter rally.

Whatever it takes

The uncanny quality of these 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers is their demonstrated ability to reverse course when their ship appears headed for certain disaster. Coming into the Sunday night matchup with Baltimore, the 10-2 Steelers surely had less to lose by a defeat than the wildcard-contending Ravens. But despite the significant difference in the game’s magnitude between these divisional rivals, the Steelers nevertheless played it to the hilt, emerging with yet another gritty, gutty victory. Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers’ coaching staff deserve high marks for their ability to keep the team focused under some very difficult circumstances.

Fortunately, Roethlisberger and the offense delivered precisely the kind of multifaceted attack that Pittsburgh is going to need as the team moves onward in the wake of Shazier’s absence. While it’s obvious the Steelers’ defense has been thrown into a state of disarray without No. 50 on the field, this outstanding and timely effort by the offense has bought Pittsburgh valuable time to get some of their defensive issues ironed out.

With any luck, and regardless of what happens next Sunday versus the Patriots, the Steelers now have a reasonable chance to right their defensive ship in time for the playoffs. On Sunday night—for the first time during the 2017 regular season—Pittsburgh’s display of offensive firepower looked like it’s truly a match for any NFL rival. And that happens to be just what the doctor ordered.