The Steelers and the Ravens fought it out on the turf at Heinz Field Sunday night, and while officially the stakes were the AFC Championship, the two teams played as if they were fighting for the right to claim the legacy of the Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkis, George Halas and Vince Lombardi.
The first two games between these two AFC North Rivals both went to the wire for good reason: These two teams are about as evenly matched as is possible.
Both are led by dominating, punishing defenses and bright young coaches. On offense what the Raven’s lack in experience under center in comparison to the Steelers, they make up for in a stronger offensive line and a more productive running game.
Games where the stakes are so high and the teams so close come down to a variety of factors. Coaching, seizing opportunities, will to win, and great players making plays.
Each element impacted the game, but in the end only one proved to be decisive.
It's [Not] The Coaching Stupid
John Harbaugh is nothing if not audacious. When his team got the ball the Ravens came out throwing, which was quite bold considering the quality of Pittsburgh’s defense.
This move cost him 3 points early on, and it took time for Baltimore to gain their footing. If you fault the man for his wisdom, you’ve got to admire his attitude. He and his staff were also quite astute in challenging Santonio Holmes' first long catch, as almost no one in the stadium saw that Holmes had lost possession.
Mike Tomlin had a solid game plan, and the Steelers defense got the better of the Ravens during the early going. Yet, for all of the third down conversions, there was a palpable disruption to the Steelers offense as soon as Hines Ward was lost.
You don’t miss what you’ve got until it’s gone, but the Steelers should have been better prepared for this kind of contingency. Bruce Arians, who has drawn more than his share of fire from Steel Curtain Rising, called a pretty good game, and stuck to his plan to run the ball, even when it wasn’t working as well as anyone would have liked.
Nonetheless, his decision to throw out of an empty set on third and 1 while protecting a lead was foolish. The fact that Hines Ward was to be the primary receiver in the original play makes the call more mystifying.
The uncertain will absolutely arise against Arizona in the Super Bowl, and the coaching staff must adjust better.
Credit both coaches for this game, but in the end, coaching did not make the difference.
The Steelers have lived on edge all season, and watching this game made one think that they like it that way.
Limas Sweed certainly does, dropping a sure touchdown pass, and then allowing embarrassment to lead led him to feign injury, costing the team a precious time out and ultimately a field goal too.
Chris Kemoeatu and Ike Taylor also appear to be fond of sailing close to the wind, as had penalties called on them that greatly contributed to Baltimore’s second TD. (I won’t single out Bryant McFadden, as his pass interference penalty was borderline at best.)
Yet if you credit the Ravens for scooping up of these hand-wrapped gifts, you must fault them for discipline at a critical juncture. The personal foul on Anthony Madison after the Ravens had returned a punt to the 40 set Baltimore back at a moment where momentum was clearly on their side.
Mistakes aside, Pittsburgh also made its opportunities, in the form of numerous scrambles by Ben and his ad-lib touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
As important as these events were, opportunism would not rule the day.
Just the Price of Admission
These teams do not like each other. These teams both wanted a shot at the Super Bowl. Only one ticket to Tampa was to be had.
The result was a game played with an intensity seldom matched in today’s NFL. While momentum may have shifted back and forth, neither team showed any sign of backing down. The hits got harder as the final gun approached. Each side upped the ante when it came time to show who wanted it more.
The will to win has always been the requisite for admission when the Steelers and Ravens have played this year, but never a differentiating factor.
Lynn Swann’s Words Vindicated
In his commentary for the video “The Steelers of the 70’s in their own words,” Lynn Swann said it best:
"Chicago has one Michael Jordan, who with the game on the line takes the ball in his hands, shoots and scores. Well, we had four or five guys who felt that they could do that on every single play."
Steel Curtain Rising is not ready to elevate these Steelers to the status shared by their 70’s counterparts, not yet at least, but this team has some players who flat out make things happen.
Ben Roethlisberger has done it time and time again this year, against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Dallas, and then Baltimore again.
Hines Ward and James Harrison have also come through in the clutch.
The Ravens, with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and perhaps some others, have their share too. But the Steelers simply have more, and that was the difference in the AFC Championship. And there is no better illustration of this than the decisive score.
After completing a masterful 20 yard completion brought Baltimore to close to mid field, the Steelers held the Ravens to two yards on first.
LaMarr Woodley turned it up a notch and sacked Joe Flacco on second. That brought up third down and it was time for the Steelers stars to shine.
Flacco faded back to pass, but as he has done so often this year, James Harrison was there, arriving just in time to disrupt the rookie’s pass.
Troy Polamalu was in coverage. He read Flacco's eyes, positioined himself, leapted, and came down with the ball.
Hollywood producers would not have scripted what followed next for the simple fact that no one would have believed it. From 40 yards out Polamalu tucked the ball under his arm, dodged and weaved, accelerated and reversed direction, zigged and zagged, lunged forward and then cut back, flying past defender after defender as he found the goal line.
And that sealed the Raven’s fate.
John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have every reason to be proud, and just as Steelers Nation should know that these men are going to a formidable force in the AFC North to say the least.
But for the moment, the Steelers, led by their playmakers, are the power in the AFC to be reckoned with.
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