It’s not the only game to have been won in the waning seconds. It’s not the only one to have been decided by less than a touchdown. Far from it, actually. It isn’t the only clean, respectful match between two bitter rivals. But it might have been the best because it was all of the above, and more.
Back-and-forth doesn’t begin to describe what went down on the grass at Heinz Field between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. At various points in the game, the Steelers found themselves up by seven, down by ten, up by four, down by three and, finally, a four-point victor. And that was in chronological order. The game featured a first half in which 13 points were scored, and a fourth quarter where the score board lit up like a Christmas tree to the tune of 31 points, including 14 in the final 1:18.
The Ravens played an excellent game. They kept the Steelers off-balance, running it more often than they typically have in 2016, while using short passes to get the ball outside of the tackles quickly. It added up to the Steelers’ inside linebackers spending a good deal of the game yo-yoing from the line of scrimmage to the perimeter and back again, one play after another.
But the Steelers’ defense did what it has done time and again, bending when necessary but rarely breaking. Thy held the Ravens to four field goals on five attempts, while only allowing one short-field touchdown after the first of Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s two uncharacteristic mistakes at home early in the second half, before the craziness of the fourth quarter took over.
When that Bizarro Quarter began, Pittsburgh was down 17-10, a margin that widened to 20-10 shortly thereafter. From that point on, four touchdowns were scored, all on drives of at least 75 yards, and only one of which took more than 2:49 off the clock.
Through it all, not a punch was thrown. Heck, I can’t even remember a single post-whistle shove. The closest thing to the fireworks common in games between bitter rivals turned out to be a phantom call by the officials, who said Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell shoved Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. down out of bounds. The replay shows Cockrell not only didn’t touch Smith, but also consciously tried to avoid contact.
And...that was it. No borderline hits by Steelers safety Mike Mitchell. No jawing from Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. It went beyond just being a clean, hard-fought game on both sides.
It was respectful.
There’s always a certain level of respect shown between these two teams. They fight hard, but in the end they get along. But something felt different about this game. The respect reached new depths. Maybe it was the emotional and physical exhaustion from such a back-and-forth game. I don’t know, and I don’t think I ever will. And I don’t care.
The beautiful thing about this game was that it was simply a case of the better team winning. Yes, the officials made some questionable calls. But, for once, it wasn’t part of the narrative when the game ended. It wasn’t Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, opening his press conference by informing the officials they were terrible after his University of Michigan Wolverines lost to the Ohio State University Buckeyes two days after Thanksgiving. It was two long-tenured, savvy coaches playing chess for three hours, then shaking hands afterward.
There were no underlying quarrels or issues that defined the drama Sunday night. The game, itself, was the drama. And that, combined with the exciting fourth quarter and what was at stake for each team, made this not only the best game in this rivalry so far, but possibly one of the best NFL games ever.