PITTSBURGH -- This is why the rest of the AFC didn’t want to see the Baltimore Ravens squeak into the playoffs. This is why the Kansas City Chiefs did the rest of the conference’s Super Bowl contenders no favors last week, when they toppled San Diego at Arrowhead Stadium to give the Ravens new life in the postseason. This is why even the top-seeded New England Patriots have to have a bit of an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach about now.
Granted, these Ravens never make it easy on themselves in the regular season. But they definitely know how to play in January. And John Harbaugh’s battle-tested club knows what it takes to win on the road in the playoffs, silencing even the most hostile crowds with the kind of effort that hushed Heinz Field on Saturday night.
Don’t look now, AFC, but Baltimore is at it again. The sixth-seeded Ravens (11-6) just announced their presence will once again be felt in the postseason, roughing up the AFC North champion Steelers, 30-17, in a game they controlled almost throughout. Baltimore is making its sixth playoff trip in Harbaugh’s seven-year coaching tenure, and each time the Ravens have won at least one game in the postseason. More impressively, Baltimore is now an eye-popping 7-4 on the road in the playoffs, with Harbaugh tying both Tom Landry and Tom Coughlin for the most road victories in NFL postseason history.
Let that one sink in for a bit: Tom, Tom and Harbs. A coaching legend and Hall of Famer, a future Hall of Famer, and the guy who isn’t even the most acclaimed coach in his own family. But, man, do his Ravens know how to turn it on when the NFL’s single-elimination tournament starts every winter. And this time, they just eliminated their archrivals in the process, sweeping the third-seeded Steelers (11-6) out of the playoffs and extending Pittsburgh’s postseason losing streak to three. The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since beating the visiting Jets in the AFC title game after the 2010 season.
There was nothing fluky about Baltimore’s win, even acknowledging that Pittsburgh’s loss of injured running back Le’Veon Bell (knee) in Week 17 was a huge hardship for Mike Tomlin’s team to overcome and left the Steelers offense without any semblance of a running game (68 yards on 19 carries) to balance out their attack. But the Ravens imposed their will on Pittsburgh on both lines of scrimmage while gaining confidence and a sense of playoff-season swagger as the game unfolded. The Steelers only lead of the game was a 3-0 first-quarter advantage, with the Ravens scoring a touchdown early in the second quarter and assuming control from there on out.
“I think everybody was dialed in,’’ said Ravens veteran receiver Steve Smith, who caught a team-high five passes for 101 yards and partook of his first Baltimore-Pittsburgh playoff game. “Guys really understand and know (what it takes). I think they were expecting to roll over us again.’’
Baltimore went just 6-10 on the road in the past two years, and got lambasted here by the Steelers in Week 9, with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger riddling its secondary with six touchdown passes in a 43-23 win. But that was the regular season, and this is the playoffs. And the Ravens know the difference.
Baltimore specializes in surviving in the regular season, then thriving in the postseason. Once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen, and usually does. The Ravens hang around all year, then scratch and claw to advance once the stakes are their highest. And this season in Baltimore, surviving meant enduring the unprecedented early season Ray Rice controversy, a slew of injuries that landed 18 players on IR, and still finding a way to win their way into the playoffs.
“We played our best football game of the year right here, and I think it’s because of what we’ve been through all year (and) the way we’ve stuck together all year,’’ Harbaugh said. “We had each other’s backs and maintained our faith. That’s what has made the difference for us.’’
The Steelers offense finished with the No. 2 ranked offense in the league by yardage, and Baltimore’s 49 sacks on defense were the second-most in the NFL. But without Bell, the Steelers looked one-dimensional, and the Ravens took advantage of that, sacking Roethlisberger five times, hitting him plenty more, and picking him off twice.
Without Bell, whose 2,200-plus yards from scrimmage made him the Steelers’ most valuable weapon, Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs admitted the task of beating Pittsburgh was made much easier.
"We knew we had to convince them to get out of their run game, without (No.) 26,’’ Suggs said. “He’s fantastic player and him not playing definitely worked to our advantage. I’m just going to be honest, had they had him, that’s a whole ‘nother weapon between him and 84 (receiver Antonio Brown)."
Suggs had one of the two interceptions of Roethlisberger, and it was a catch for the ages, with him somehow securing the ball between his legs, before wrapping up the mid-fourth-quarter pick with his arms. On the next play, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco found Ravens tight end Crockett Gilmore for a game-sealing 21-yard touchdown pass.
"I saw the running back (Ben Tate), I saw (Roethlisberger) ready to dump it and I just wanted to make a play on the running back and the ball popped up,’’ Suggs said. “It was one of those plays that could change the game and I just knew I had to catch it. Grab the ball, get down and catch it. Had I dropped it, ain’t no telling what Ben would’ve done. It was just being in the right place at the right time."
Harbaugh called Suggs’ grab "the greatest catch in football," then set up the 12th-year veteran for the kill. "You’ll never see a greater catch," he said. "We just gave him the game ball for the greatest catch in the history of football. I toss it to him. What happened do you think? He dropped it. He caught the one that mattered. Clutch."
Speaking of clutch, unlike Roethlisberger, Flacco was truly clutch once again in the postseason, completing 18 of 29 passes for 259 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and 114.0 passer rating. The Ravens didn’t have any running game to speak of either, with just 49 yards on 25 carries (2.0), but that didn’t stop Flacco from recording his mind-boggling 10th career playoff win in 14 games, giving him twice as many postseason wins as any other quarterback in the league since he entered the NFL as a first-round pick in 2008. Flacco has 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his past nine playoff games, and Baltimore is 5-0 in the postseason since losing the 2011 AFC title game in excruciating fashion to New England in Foxboro.
Which is exactly where the Ravens are headed next weekend, to take on the No. 1-seeded Patriots in the first game of the divisional playoff round, on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Baltimore has pulled playoff road upsets of New England in 2009’s first round, and 2012’s AFC Championship Game, and has always matched up well against Bill Belichick’s team. As we have seen over the years, the defenses that can pressure Tom Brady are the defenses that render him mortal, and few are as adept at moving No. 12 off his spot than the Ravens.
True, Rice and receiver Anquan Boldin were two of the biggest play-makers for Baltimore in its past playoff wins at Gillette Stadium, and both are no longer with the Ravens. But there’s still an unmatched tenaciousness that Baltimore plays with against the long-time AFC powerhouse, and the Ravens are not intimidated by the challenge of going into Foxboro.
Suggs didn’t specify, but he said he knows the league isn’t hoping for another Ravens run to the Super Bowl. Not with the enticing New England-Seattle showdown as the people’s choice for Super Bowl Sunday, or even the potential of another Brady versus Peyton Manning matchup in the AFC Championship Game.
"This is just the NFL," Suggs said. “We all know the matchup (the) NFL wants to see, something for the TV, for the sponsors, But we’ve got faith in ourselves, in Ravens Nation, and let’s see if we can disrupt some people’s plans."
It’s a skill that Harbaugh’s resilient and resourceful club has gotten very adept at in the past seven years. Already you can sense how much the rest of the AFC playoff field is starting to regret not killing off these Ravens when it had the chance. In Baltimore, another Lombardi chase is on, and the underdog Ravens are looking like a threat once more.