Ravens claim crucial win in strange showdown with the Steelers
Such was the case again Thursday night, as Baltimore held on for a flat-out strange 22-20 win in what essentially amounted to a do-or-die game in the AFC North and wild-card race.
But, well ... where to even begin with this one?
Perhaps at the end, as the Steelers attempted to tie a game they trailed almost throughout. Down by eight at the two-minute warning, the Steelers then appeared to score touchdowns on consecutive plays -- in fact, both plays were called touchdowns initially. First, Heath Miller was ruled to have scored on a 20-yard reception, only to have the ball placed back at the 1-yard line on review. Then, Le'Veon Bell crossed the plane for six, despite a vicious collision with Jimmy Smith that left Bell concussed, but lost his score on a seldom-seen rule that kills plays immediately when a ball carrier's helmet pops off.
The Steelers did eventually find the end zone, on a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Jerricho Cotchery score with 1:06 left. They failed on the subsequent two-point conversion, then again on the onside kick, finally locking down an emotional victory for Baltimore.
"This is another classic Ravens-Steelers game," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, "and these keep happening."
It took all sorts of events to push this latest matchup to its dramatic conclusion.
In hindsight, considering the closing two-point margin, the most important of all may have been a botched 49-yard field goal attempt by Pittsburgh in the second quarter. Kicker Shaun Suisham jumped the gun on the snap, moving forward early in what could have been deemed a false start. He reached holder Mat McBriar before McBriar had the ball placed, resulting in a lateral to Suisham and a 12-yard loss.
Had Pittsburgh completed its comeback for a win, though, the key play may not have even been made by a player. After the Steelers scored to pull within 13-7 in the third quarter, Baltimore return man Jacoby Jones nearly took the ensuing kickoff back to the house. However, he was caught from behind by Cortez Allen, with a possible assist from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who slightly altered Jones' course by standing at the extreme edge of the sideline.
"I always watch the returns on the Jumbotron to provide a better perspective, and I obviously lost my placement," explained Tomlin, who smiled when the replay was shown to Baltimore's fans at M&T Bank Stadium.
Rather than reestablish a 13-point lead on a Jones TD, the Ravens eventually settled for a field goal, keeping the Steelers within striking distance.
"As soon as I hit the hole, I started to run down the sideline, and I looked at him and [thought], 'Is he gonna move?' Jones said to NBC's Michele Tafoya. "That's the first time I've ever got caught in my life."
"Did they credit [Tomlin] with a tackle on that?" Harbaugh joked.
Pittsburgh's inability to knot the game on the late two-point conversion attempt -- Emmanuel Sanders dropped a difficult back-shoulder catch -- will keep Tomlin's odd antic relegated to a footnote. The same cannot be said for Suisham's miscue or any number of errors Pittsburgh had over the course of the game.
It took the Steelers' offense more than two and a half quarters to get off the schneid, while their defense allowed Baltimore to convert on 58 percent (10-of-17) of third downs.
The Ravens set the tone early, leaving the Steelers to stagger back off the ropes. After the visitors went three-and-out courtesy of three straight run plays on the game's opening possession, Baltimore responded by throwing caution to the wind. Joe Flacco took a deep shot on his team's first play and another on the fourth. The latter, a 54-yard completion to Torrey Smith, set Flacco up to find Smith in the end zone.
Try as they might, through all the randomness of the remaining evening, the Steelers never again pulled even.
"Tonight, we'll accept responsibility for not doing enough and we'll congratulate them for doing it," Tomlin said. "It's life in this series, you know. You guys have seen enough of these games to know that style points are not as important as mettle, as [being able to] finish."
By virtue of holding on for dear life, the Ravens, left for dead after a 3-5 start, may get a shot to defend their Super Bowl crown after all. They'll close Week 13 no worse than tied for a wild-card spot and two back of the AFC North; if Cincinnati loses in San Diego Sunday, Baltimore would be just a game behind the division leaders.
The upcoming road is tough: Minnesota, at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati. Baltimore should not and will not complain given how much effort it took simply to get to 6-6.
The Steelers, on the other hand, close with three of four at home. Had they won Thursday night, they would have been in the driver's seat for at least a wild-card berth. Instead, because of that field-goal gaffe, two-point miss and a truckload of issues in between, they'll likely have to win out and hope for help.
There's no margin for error for them anymore ... and very little wiggle room for Baltimore either. Perhaps those realities are fitting, given how little separated these two rivals on a strange, thrilling night.