Sunday, December 14, 2008
(ABOVE) A cutaway view of a clutch. Now also known in Pittsburgh as a "Roethlisberger". EXAMPLE: "I blew the Roethlisberger on my Jeep".
In a defensive battle that lived up to the pre-game hype and then some, the Steelers pulled out a 13-9 win in Baltimore that not only clinched the AFC North but also puts the conference lead and home field advantage throughout the playoffs within their reach. It was that big of a victory.
While the Ravens defense (the number two unit in the league behind the Steelers) did a terrific job stifiling the Steelers offense throughout the game, they couldn't stop Big Ben when the chips were down. In another vintage comeback, Roethlisberger, with 3:36 to work with on the clock and 92 yards yawning in front of him, went to work on the Ravens defense along with pals Hines Ward, Nate Washiington and Santonio Holmes. When the dust had settled, Santonio Holmes was ruled in the end zone on a highly-debateable call and the Steelers had a 13-9 lead with only 46 seconds left. With that catch, Holmes abandoned the goat horns he was wearing at the time due to two earlier fumbles.
But wait, there was a personal foul call on the extra point assessed on Steelers place kicker Jeff Reed for shoving a Raven (a real reach) so the resultant kickoff was returned all the way to midfield.
The Steelers defense capped off another marvelous showing by having William Gay intercepting Joe Flacco, Baltimore's rookie quarterback in their own endzone to seal the victory. Yes, it was a very satisfying win.
However, there were three other very key occurences that had a lot to do with the Steelers winning this game.
1) In the first quarter, the Ravens correctly challenged what appeared to be a very poor ball placement on a third and one play. Incredibly, the ruling on the field--a first down-- was upheld. This eventually led to the Steelers tying the game 3-3 on a 30 yard Jeff Reed field goal.
2) In the third quarter, Santonio Holmes (who battled the ball all game long) let a punt bounce that wound up on the one yard line. On the next play. Big Ben hit Holmes on a slant pass that he caught in stride only to be stripped of the ball that the Ravens recovered at the Steelers 15. The Ravens moved the ball a grand total of four yards in three plays, thus settling for a 9-3 lead instead of the much better 13-3 variety. Those additional four points would have come in handy for Baltimore later in the game.
3) Early in the fourth quarter, after sacking and stripping Ben Roethlisberger on a third and one play (the Steelers at 43.5% are ranked last in the NFL on third down conversions) their killer defense once again stiffened, sacking Joe Flacco for a significant loss and taking them out of field goal range. Once again the Ravens were forced to punt.
While the Steelers were far from perfect offensively, they proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that when the chips are down that they definitely believe that they can pull out victories. Their resilience is the stuff of champions and for now, they are the Champions of the AFC North, but you have to believe that bigger and better things are coming.
"Seven delivered" said a surprisingly-subdued Mike Tomlin after the game "He wants the ball in his hands in that situation. I'm proud of that team in there."
When asked if he was aware that Tennessee had lost their game today and if he realized the implications of the big contest next weekend against the Titans, Tomlin stated that, "(He) wasn't, then said, "When you've been playing the kind of schedule we've been playing, you learn not to look ahead. It's not a healthy thing to do."
Hines Ward, the oft self-proclaimed "head of the receivers" spoke at great length about the victory. "As the head of the receivers I was disappointed at the lapses, the drops, that the receivers had had, but I was very proud of how they bounced back at the end".
At 11-3 the Steelers have far exceeded every national pre-season prognosticator's predictions as far as their expected number of wins for 2008. Most were figuring them to finish at 9-7 or 10-6. at best. The Steelers have two games remaining, next week at Conference-leading Tennessee followed by a home game against the already-vacationing Cleveland Browns. Should they win both games, they would become the top-ranked team in the AFC, thus assuring an important first round bye and home field throughout the playoffs. They have already clinched at least second place in the conference.
Tennessee's stumble at Houston yesterday opened the door to the Steelers taking the top spot in the AFC, something they haven't done since 2004 when they were ultimately victimized at Heinz Field by those cheating Patriots in the AFC Championship.
With the gauntlet of wins they've put together, they're already playoff ready and have to be considered as a strong favorite to make it to the SuperBowl. In many respects, their recent string of wins against the very best of opponents could make that playoff run seem almost anticlimactic before reaching the SuperBowl stage.
One thing is certain: There have to be a lot of teams in the NFL who are hoping they won't have to face this team any time soon.
GAME NOTES: The Steelers deferred the opening kickoff, opting for the ball in the third quarter. That drive was a disappointing three and out...Mitch Berger has been criticized by Steeler fans for poor punts, but on a play in the first half he short-hopped a bad snap, got off a good punt that bounced toward the ten where it was picked up and almost returned for a touchdown. The saving tackle was provided by, that's right, Mitch Berger...Keyaron Fox and Patrick Bailey continue to be special teams demons. Bailey blew up the Ravens Figures in the fourth quarter while Fox, in addition to several tackles (including one on Figures) he also managed to recover one of Santonio Holmes fumbles and return it to the Baltimore 32 yard line....In the final sequence of plays at the four yard line, Roethlisberger inexplicably spiked the ball on first down with one time out remaining and 46 seconds left. After an incompletion to Matt Spaeth, he then hooked up with Holmes for the controversial game-winning score. Had the catch not been ruled a touchdown, the Steelers would have faced a fourth and two inches for a touchdown. Would they have gone for it or kicked a field goal? My guess: After driving 92 yards they would have definitely gone for two more inches.