BALTIMORE -- We probably should have seen this one coming. The aging Charlie Batch has looked like he was on his last legs for years now. Just like the aging Pittsburgh Steelers. But they both refuse to go away. At least quietly.
Desperation can make for some beautiful football in December, and the Steelers seem to specialize in it. It's as if we've been watching them respond to late-season necessity for decades now.
So of course the Steelers responded on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Of course Batch and Pittsburgh shook off one of their ugliest performances ever -- last week's eight-turnover loss at Cleveland -- to somehow cobble together the win they had to have: Steelers 23, Ravens 20, in the game that breathes new life into Pittsburgh's playoff hopes.
Batch and the Steelers had no business winning this game, in this stadium, where Baltimore had not lost in almost exactly two years. Not with the Ravens ready and waiting to sweep the Steelers for a second consecutive year, and all but put a hammerlock on another AFC North title.
Be honest. When Ben Roethlisberger was ruled out on Friday, didn't we all rule the Steelers out of this game, too? I did. But that's the resolve and resiliency the Steelers are known for. Count them out, and they mount a comeback. Question their chances, and they suddenly like their odds.
The Steelers are predictable that way, and almost quaint in their beliefs. They know where they've been, they know who they are, and they're pretty sure they know where they're going -- even if they have to travel a crooked line to get there. Kind of like Batch himself, Pittsburgh's soon-to-be 38 third-string-quarterback-turned-starter.
"I've been in the league 15 years. I've been a starter in this league and the one thing you can't do is dwell on the past," said Batch, of last week's dismal 20-14 loss at Cleveland, in which he threw three interceptions and looked old and tired of arm. "It's a long season, and no matter what, all I can ask for is another opportunity. I wanted this opportunity because I played poorly last week, and I wanted the opportunity to come out here and prove it and lead this team.''
Batch got it, and he proved it, emphatically, leading Pittsburgh to the must victory that snapped its two-game Roethlisberger-less losing streak, and kept the 7-5 Steelers just ahead of Cincinnati (7-5) for the AFC's sixth and final playoff berth. Down 13-6 at the half and 20-13 entering the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh mounted a 10-point comeback in the game's final 15 minutes, snapping Baltimore's NFL-best 16-game home winning streak (including playoffs). The Ravens dropped to 9-3, ending a four-game winning streak, but still hold a two-game division lead with four weeks left in the regular season.
Batch was superb when it mattered most against the Ravens, overcoming his early fourth-quarter interception at the hands of Baltimore safety Ed Reed to drive the Steelers to the game-tying points on a seven-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller with 7:24 remaining. Then, with the game, and quite possibly the Steelers' season, in his hands, Batch was even better, coolly directing a 12-play, 61-yard scoring drive that consumed the final 6:14, and culminated in Shaun Suisham's 42-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. All told, Batch was 8 of 8 for 72 yards on the Steelers' final two drives.
"This is big for Charlie Batch,'' veteran Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "I know he's won a lot of games in this league, but it's got to go up toward the top. Against all the adversity, and the bad game he had last week, he responded the right way. The way he should have. I don't know how many yards he threw for, but he was throwing that ball today. He had an excellent game.''
Batch threw for 276 yards, to be exact. Or 88 more than Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who sputtered to a so-so 16-of-34 showing, with one touchdown, one interception, a 61.9 passer rating and the game-changing fumble -- on a strip sack by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, which was recovered by defensive end Ziggy Hood at the Ravens 27 with 9:41 left. When Batch at that point got his second chance at getting a second chance, he made the most of it, and finished a crisp 25 of 36 for those 276 yards, with a touchdown, one interception and an 89.6 rating.
"Big necessary win for us tonight in a hostile environment,'' said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, whose club had uncharacteristically lost three in a row in this heated rivalry, and was the last team to get out of Baltimore with a win, in Week 13 of 2010. "We don't take that lightly. We'll appreciate it tonight and the efforts of men in less than ideal circumstances, no doubt. But we expect them to do their job and they were able to do it. [Batch] did the job tonight, along with his comrades, and that's most important when I stand here.''
Tomlin loves to talk about his defense and his team "not letting go of the rope,'' and that's an apt analogy of the mindset that prevails in Pittsburgh, where the culture is all about doing your job and holding up your end of the deal. Batch personified that Steelers' ethos Sunday, because without Roethlisberger (ribs and shoulder) and backup quarterback Byron Leftwich (ribs) healthy, few gave Batch much hope of keeping Pittsburgh's playoff dreams alive. In the NFL, when your third quarterback has to play, it means almost certain defeat. Except not on this night. The Steelers wouldn't play along with the presumed storyline and drop the rope.
"We feel most comfortable when everybody says, 'No way, we can't do it,' " Foote said. "We hear that every training camp going in, people reminding us how old we are. We get a little uncomfortable when you guys (the media) start picking us. But I'm proud of everybody, especially Charlie Batch.''
Batch had more to worry about than just his own performance. With starting rookie right tackle Mike Adams injured at Cleveland, Pittsburgh had to reconfigure its offensive line, shifting Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to left guard, starting rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum at right tackle, and moving veteran interior lineman Doug Legursky to center. But Pittsburgh allowed just two sacks and ground out a respectable 96 yards rushing on 26 carries (3.7).
No matter who the Steelers put out there, they're expected to do their job. Even in Baltimore. Against a Ravens team that doesn't lose at home, and had won 12 straight in the division. In the game of the year for Pittsburgh. Down in the fourth quarter. No matter the obstacles, you don't let go of the rope. You just don't.
"We talk about a full 60-minute game,'' Batch said. "We just knew, the way this series goes, it's always whoever has the ball last, pretty much wins. We knew when we took the field, [just more than] six minutes to go, we didn't want to put our defense back on the field.''
So the Steelers didn't. Batch and the offense controlled the ball, got the three points that won the game, and allowed Pittsburgh to keep some semblance of control of its season. The Steelers draw a visit from the sputtering Chargers next week, then travel to Dallas in Week 15. If form holds, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will likely be playing for the final AFC playoff berth in Week 16, at Heinz Field. That's what was at stake Sunday in Baltimore. Lose this one and the Steelers might not have enough time left to make December meaningful.
"Charlie came in and played the game that we needed him to play today to win,'' Harrison said, matter of factly. "It's not surprising to us. It may be to you, but not to us.''
It shouldn't have been surprising to us. We should have seen it coming. Necessity always brings out the best in the Steelers. On Sunday, an almost 38-year-old Charlie Batch did whatever it took to keep Pittsburgh moving forward.
Once again, the Steelers are refusing to go away.