Ben Roethlisberger unbuckled his chinstrap and flung his right hand across his body in self-disgust. After throwing a second interception near his own goal line—this one close to the end of the third quarter as Big Ben's Steelers trailed by seven—he dropped his head on his way back to the sideline.
As if the game was over. As if Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchups don't always go down to the final whistle. As if this chapter of the NFL's best rivalry, with the AFC North up for grabs, wasn't also going to be special. But of course it would be.
About an hour later, Roethlisberger let his chin hit his chest again, this time in exhaustion as much as anything else. He had just led the Steelers in the last of three fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Antonio Brown caught a slant on the one-yard line, where three Ravens immediately greeted him. But the 180-lb. receiver extended himself backwards and twisted far enough to stick his left hand, and the football, across the goal line for a game-winning TD. Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North title and a playoff spot with a 31–27 win. A classic.
"I kind of dug ourselves a hole," Roethlisberger said after the game. "I take all the blame, but we never quit. Guys fought back." Following CJ Mosley's third-quarter interception and run back to the Pittsburgh 11-yard line, the Steelers D held Baltimore to its fourth field goal of the game to stay within 10. Then, the 'burgh's Killer B's took over. On back-to-back possessions, Big Ben, Brown and Le'Veon Bell fueled a pair of touchdown drives that spanned 165 yards on just 11 plays. A seven-yard scoring catch-and-run by Bell capped the second march and put the Steelers up by four, 24–20.
Baltimore answered with its own 75-yard drive, ending with a 10-yard TD run by Kyle Juszczyk. The fullback showed why he was voted to his first Pro Bowl earlier this week by finding an open gap to his right, bowling over Steelers heat-seeker Mike Mitchell, and using his left hand to stay upright long enough to dive across the goal line, pigskin extended. By the time Juszczyk was up, a grin had spread across his face as he pounded the B on his helmet. With 1:18 left, Baltimore looked poised to win its fifth straight over Pittsburgh and take control of the division, up 27–24.
For three quarters, the Steelers had appeared to be one weapon short on offense. Missing tight end Ladarius Green to a concussion and receiver Sammie Coates to a hamstring injury—on top of the absence of wideouts Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh struggled to generate first downs against the league's No. 3 defense. Yet, on the game-winning drive, Jesse James, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers each did his part as Roethlisberger moved the ball 71 yards in 64 seconds, leaving Pittsburgh needing four more with 14 ticks left. In that moment, the QB looked to his star, giving Brown catch No. 106 of the year and letting him do the rest, pushing past Eric Weddle and into the end zone. "This guy is the best receiver in the world and that's what he does," Bell said afterwards.
Sunday's result was the simpler one in terms of playoff implications. The Steelers are now in the playoffs, no matter what happens when Cleveland comes to town next weekend, and the Ravens—for the third year in the last four—are out.
Over the course of yet another historic Ravens-Steelers game, though, Roethlisberger wasn't thinking about any of that. When he wasn't leading a season-saving comeback, he was spending his Christmas "praying on the sideline," he said. "No one stopped believing. There was a lot of love and faith in each other, and we just kept going."