Each hit wounded Byron Leftwich more than the last. The Steelers' backup quarterback, pressed into the starting lineup for Sunday's night absolutely critical showdown with the Ravens, grimaced every time a Baltimore defender hit him, doubled over with pain, grabbing alternately for his shoulder and ribs.
And then, just when Leftwich finally managed to stay on his feet and get a couple of passes away, Baltimore turned to leveling his teammates.
The Steelers' penultimate drive, with the Ravens clinging to a 13-10 lead in another ultra-physical showdown between these teams, ended when James Ihedigbo came untouched on a blitz and buried Leftwich for a sack. Leftwich rolled over, clearly in pain, and barely made it off the field.
Pittsburgh got the ball back in the closing seconds and had one last shot at a rally. But Corey Graham unloaded on Heath Miller over the middle, jarring the ball out of Miller's normally sure hands. One play later, Bernard Pollard hammered Jerricho Cotchery on the sideline, forcing another costly incompletion and all but sealing the Ravens' 13-10 win.
"It's just like Ali-Frazier," longtime Raven Terrell Suggs told the NFL Network of what it's like in the trenches for these AFC North clashes.
"It's my first time witnessing (a Ravens-Steelers game) -- it lived up to expectations," said the first-year Raven Graham, who also picked off a Leftwich pass in the third quarter. That play helped set up a Justin Tucker field goal, which eventually stood as the winning tally.
Leftwich deserves a healthy dose of credit simply for making it through this one, though the way he started lent hope to his teammates and home fans that Ben Roethlisberger's absence would not be felt.
Less than a minute into the game, Leftwich rolled right on a pass play, then took off scrambling up the right sideline. Instead of ducking out of bounds, he cut back between two Baltimore defenders and raced into the end zone, Roethlisberger sprinting the sideline in support.
But Leftwich fell awkwardly as he crossed the goal line and briefly grabbed for his right shoulder, before continuing his celebration. Whether that play led to an injury that limited him from then on or if it simply was Baltimore's defensive attack, Leftwich's night trended downhill from there.
"I thought it was gritty," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Leftwich's performance. "Obviously, we thought it was going to be a Baltimore-Steelers-type football game, was gonna be nip and tuck. "I thought it was gritty, (but) obviously not enough plays by him or any of the rest of us to secure victory."
The biggest play of the night came courtesy of Baltimore's Jacoby Jones. With two kick return touchdowns already in his pocket this season, including a 105-yarder against Oakland last week, Jones added a score off a punt return to his resume. Jones fielded Pittsburgh's second punt of the night at his own 37 and shredded through the Steelers' coverage unit for an electrifying touchdown -- one that put the Ravens up, 10-7, a lead that they would not relinquish.
"All week in practice ... we knew we had two kick returns for touchdown," Jones said, "and we didn't have a punt return yet."
Baltimore's defense has had its share of issues this season -- it entered Sunday night 28th in yards allowed, with Ray Lewis still injured. None of that mattered in this one, however, as the Ravens held Pittsburgh to just three points after that opening Leftwich scoring scamper.
The Baltimore defense had to be that good, because its offense did next to nothing. Ray Rice managed a mere 40 yards on 20 carries, Joe Flacco struggled and the Ravens' six points on offense came off two Pittsburgh turnovers.
"It's a Steelers-Ravens game," Tomlin said. "We expected this to be a net-punting-type game, and a significant play was going to turn it. Unfortunately, they got it."
Pittsburgh had its chances, up to and including those two forced drops on the final drive of the game. In fact, the Steelers came within inches of taking a lead late in the third quarter, when Leftwich and Mike Wallace narrowly missed on a touchdown connection -- Wallace's foot coming down just out of bounds to negate the reception.
That play, plus any number of others, loomed large as the Steelers failed to ever get back even late.
"Both teams had a lot of pieces missing, but it was business as usual once the whistle blew," Suggs said. "And we got after it."
Did they ever. The ramifications: huge.
Baltimore now sits at 8-2 with a two-game edge on Pittsburgh, a rematch between the two familiar foes coming in two weeks in Baltimore. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, fell to 6-4, its lead in the AFC's wild-card race down to only one game over surging Cincinnati. Worse yet for the Steelers, it's entirely possible that they'll be down to third-string QB Charlie Batch next week, if we find out in the coming days that Leftwich was, indeed, injured during Sunday's game.
Either way, Sunday's result hurt the Steelers -- a pain that the Ravens were all too happy to inflict.
"They hate us," Suggs said. "We're the one team in the NFL that they don't want to lose to, especially here. We love being in the lions' den. "They gotta expect a 12-round heavyweight fight, we gotta slug it out with them."