I don’t know about you, but early in the fourth quarter, when Justin Tucker booted his fourth field goal of the day to give Baltimore a 20-10 lead over the Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday night, I thought and then texted to my brother, “I’m so sick of the Ravens.”
All week long, as Pittsburgh prepared for the penultimate regular season game of 2016—an AFC North battle that wasn’t quite a playoff game, but may as well have been—I kept hearing how the Ravens were a team built specifically to win in this now legendary AFC North rivalry.
In fact, Gerry Dulac, a Steelers insider for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said exactly that last week during a radio appearance with Stan Savran. Obviously, since the Steelers had been the class of the division for so long, Baltimore concentrated on structuring its roster in such a way as to have the upper-hand when the two teams met twice (sometimes, thrice) annually.
Judging by recent history (dating back to Week 1 of the 2011 season, the Ravens had won nine of 12 match-ups in the series—including the previous four), there was no doubt Baltimore’s plan was a sound one.
Therefore, as confident as I was heading into Sunday’s game—the Steelers were on a five-game winning streak and it never hurts to be at home—there was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that those Ravens were going to find a way to win the game. And it didn’t help that, much like so many times during the past half-decade or so, Pittsburgh would be a bit compromised with injuries.
It was bad enough that Cam Heyward was down for the year with a torn biceps, but hours before kickoff, the news was confirmed that Stephon Tuitt would also be absent from the defensive line thanks to a sprained knee.
Also, no Sammie Coates. No Ladarius Green.
Who would Ben Roethlisberger throw to with so many Ravens free to cover Antonio Brown?
Speaking of Roethlisberger, two second half interceptions (two very bad second half interceptions) led directly to 11 of Baltimore’s 20 points.
So there things stood, just as they had so many times before in recent match-ups between these two clubs: the Ravens kept things close until they were able to force a couple of egregious mistakes and now had a 10-point lead; they were less than a quarter away from taking the pole position in the race for the AFC North, with just one lap to go.
But what makes a rivalry a rivalry is that both teams contribute to its legacy. Back in the summer, on the heels of the epic battles that took place between them and the Bengals the previous year, Steelers players were asked who they considered their top rival in the AFC North: Cincinnati or the Ravens. To a man, most players picked Baltimore, and why?
Because the Ravens were the team that gave them the most trouble—they didn’t just win against them, they wrecked many of their seasons. Oh, sure, it’s nice to win a regular season game vs. your division foe every now and then—maybe even one at Heinz Field like the Bengals did on November 1, 2015. But when a team can not only defeat you at home in the playoffs, like the Ravens did in January of 2015, but take two games from you the following year—one without Ben Roethlisberger, and one without Joe Flacco—while only winning three more against the rest of the NFL, you’re going to consider that team your top rival.
For all the stuff that’s gone on between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati during the past decade or so, the Bengals have never been able to gain equal footing in the rivalry.
But, when you have a true rival—one who’s on equal ground—that team will keep you up at night.
Thankfully, even without a bunch of aerial targets, Roethlisberger, Brown, and, oh yes, Le’Veon Bell woke up in the final period and realized who they were; and with the help of a nice supporting cast, including a great offensive line and receiving contributions from Jesse James, Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton, the Steelers did just enough to wrestle (or fight) their way to a division title and playoff spot by the skin of their collective teeth.
Man, was that crazy tough or what?
Did the Antonio Brown division-clinching touchdown catch, in which he caught a short pass and did just enough to extend the ball over the goal line before several Baltimore defenders wrestled him to the ground, remind you of anything? Hopefully, it took you back about eight years to that day at M&T Bank Stadium on December 14, 2008, when Santonio Holmes did all he could to break the plane of the goal line just as he hauled in a Roethlisberger pass in the final seconds to pull out a 13-9 victory and secure the North title for the Steelers.
And if you need another deja vu moment, just like eight years ago, the Steelers were down by three, and many wondered if they’d actually go for it or kick the game-tying field goal, had Brown’s touchdown not counted for one reason or another.
The fact that the Steelers’ victory not only clinched a division title and playoff spot but also eliminated Baltimore from postseason contention isn’t just a “ha ha!” moment; I really don’t want to see that team in, or anywhere near, the playoffs.
It’s never easy against the Ravens but, then again, John Harbaugh and Co. would be the first to say it’s never easy against Pittsburgh.
Where do the Steelers go from here? Only time will tell, but they made it out of the AFC North (and I mean that literally because, unlike the Bengals last year, they won’t have to face any other team from that division in the postseason). And how about the fact that they did so in such epic fashion against as tough and true a rival as the Ravens?
Would it ever go down any other way between these two teams?