BALTIMORE -- They were faced with the challenge of playing in a short week, but as everyone knows by now, that short week included some of the longest and most trying days ever for the Baltimore Ravens.
But on this night at least, for a few happy hours, the Ravens moved past the painful Ray Rice saga and started to write what they hope is the story of their 2104 season. Based on Thursday night’s results at M&T Bank Stadium, it has a chance to be a tale of resilience and maybe even dominance.
Final score: Baltimore 26, Pittsburgh 6, in the second-most lopsided game in this smash-mouth AFC North rivalry since 2007.
Focused by desperation for their first victory, and the need to avoid a crushing 0-2 start at home, the Ravens persevered through the tumult of this week, with the revelations about Rice coming fast and furious and the headlines overshadowing what is normally the most anticipated game of the season in Baltimore.
In some strange sense, Thursday night wound up providing the Ravens with their easiest three hours of the week. After the unique and searing experience of seeing the release and banishment of one of the team’s leading stars, Baltimore was aching to turn its full attention back to the field.
“It’s been a long week, but we were just ready to get back to football today," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the senior most Ravens player in terms of tenure, arriving in 2003. “We were just kind of tired of this, the microphones and the cameras, and we were just ready to get back to football.
“You just hate [what happened with Rice]. It’s just a very unfortunate situation, but we’re pros and we had to go to work. For a team whose city has so much emotion riding with the team, our city kind of went through it with us and we just all kind of stuck together. We knew we had a game to win against our division rivals, and it all came together and we got it done."
And they got it done in quite convincing fashion. Forcing three Steelers turnovers and getting a pair of sacks from linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens held Pittsburgh without a touchdown for the first time since 2006 and pulled away in the second half, outscoring their rivals 16-3 in the final two quarters after building a 10-6 lead at halftime.
On offense, Baltimore was more than solid, if not spectacular, getting two short touchdown catches from new tight end Owen Daniels (from 1 and 2 yards), and four short Justin Tucker field goals ranging from 20 to 30 yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco was never sacked or even hit, completing 21 of 29 passes for 166 yards, with those two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 109.3 passer rating. Baltimore rolled up 25 first downs to just 17 for the Steelers, collecting 323 yards of offense and holding the ball for more than 35 minutes. The Rice-less running game? It produced 157 yards on 36 carries (4.4 average), led by Bernard Pierce’s 96 yards on 22 runs, with Justin Forsett adding 56 more yards on eight attempts.
In a series in which 10 of the teams’ most recent 12 meetings had been decided by three points or fewer -- including the last five in a row -- Baltimore’s 20-point margin of victory was a rare blowout.
Some anticipated a Ravens team that would look emotionally drained from the drama that engulfed the organization, one that would come out flat and show signs of the distraction and chaos that Rice’s domestic violence case represented the past four days. From the outside looking in, it appeared a daunting task to prepare for the 1-0 Steelers in such an atmosphere. But the Ravens found relief in getting to Thursday’s game.
“This win is huge, but we knew we’re just the men for the job," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, whose fourth-quarter interception of Ben Roethlisberger was the fourth interception of his career. “I think we figured that if it’s going to be any team to go do it, it’s going to be us. We were focused all week on Pittsburgh. A lot of the media was focused on Ray, but as a team and as a whole we focused on the Steelers and didn’t let the distractions get to us."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said as this difficult week wore on, he started to feel more and more confident that his team would not be staggered by the enormity of the Rice story, and would respond in bounce-back fashion after losing 23-16 at home to Cincinnati in last Sunday’s season opener.
“I can’t say I knew what the outcome would be, because we were playing Pittsburgh," Harbaugh told me in the Ravens locker room. “But I didn’t doubt for one second that these guys would come out and just lay their hearts out tonight. Not for a second.
“I think the importance of the game for the organization, for the city, it was definitely felt by me and probably by a lot of our players. I think everybody understood, and we never talked about it, but everybody understood what was at stake because of what happened."
While the Rice controversy loomed over everything this week in Baltimore and throughout the league, the Ravens found catharsis of sorts by playing and starting this new chapter in franchise history. If anything, the game being on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy added even more emotion to an already emotional night.
“The game itself, it’s funny, but right before the game I was thinking, ‘This is the most comfortable place I can be, this Pittsburgh-Baltimore game,’" Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s here or there, it’s where I feel most at home as a coach, being in this rivalry. And that’s interesting. I don’t know exactly how, but it probably was the easiest three hours of the week."
That return to normalcy, the familiar, suited the Ravens well. And Baltimore knew the difference between being 1-1 and 0-2, with two home losses in the division, was massive in terms of keeping their playoff hopes viable this year.
“It’s a huge difference," Suggs said. “It’s very unfortunate we let the one go at our house [against the Bengals], but you’ve got to get over it quickly, especially in a short week. Coming in and playing against your division foe, you’ve got to be ready to play. I think our coach, the organization, our team and most importantly our city did a good job of kind of sticking together through this and going out to win a football game."
Rice is gone, but the Ravens’ trademark resilience was there when it was needed most. And now there’s a season that’s still very viable in Baltimore.
“Not having ever gone through anything like this before, I guess you’re never sure [what to expect]," Harbaugh said. “But knowing our guys, I had a pretty good feeling that they would respond. As a coach and players, we were into [football] all week. We weren’t too involved in any of the other stuff."
Their short week and long days aside, the Ravens knew it was time to win Thursday night. A surprisingly easy victory at the end of a hard four days was a welcomed reward.