The scoreboard lies.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens played their usual nasty, chippy, hard-hitting game on Saturday, a fact reflected on the stat sheet and on the bruised bodies of the players on both sides. Only the scoreboard suggested anything different: Steelers, 31; Ravens, 24.
Did these two really stage a high-octane shootout?
In a word, no.
The Steelers held the Ravens to 126 yards of total offense. Baltimore allowed 263 yards, the lowest total for the Steelers since Ben Roethlisberger’s return in Week 6. The Ravens had six quarterback sacks; the Steelers had five.
In the first half, Pittsburgh did all they could to hand the game away. After the Steelers scored on their opening drive, aided by a 37-yard pass interference call, they returned the favor, committing pass interference for 33 yards on third and 15, setting up the tying touchdown.
Twenty-seven seconds later, it was 14-7, Baltimore. Roethlisberger, with the pocket collapsing around him as it would for much of the day, drew back to pass and his arm collided with Terrell Suggs’s shoulder, knocking the ball forward to the Steelers 13. The Steelers started to regroup and re-huddle, two Ravens lineman congratulated each other, and then several Ravens realized they had heard no whistle. Cory Redding picked up the ball and scampered untouched past the flat-footed Steelers for a touchdown. Mike Tomlin threw the red flag, but the replay properly upheld the ruling, and Pittsburgh had used up its two challenges with three quarters to go.
The game was trudging along at a glacial pace, flags flying on nearly every play, almost-altercations all over the field. There were 106 penalty yards in the first quarter alone, the most in a playoff quarter in 20 years.
The Steelers gave the Ravens a short field again in the second quarter, when Rashard Mendenhall fumbled on his own 17, the ball jostled from his hand by teammate Chris Kemoeatu as he was going down. Joe Flacco hit Todd Heap with a 4-yard touchdown pass, and Baltimore took a 21-7 advantage into halftime.
In this rivalry, the last time the team that got to 20 points first failed to win was in October 1997 – 30 games ago.
The long-time formula for Baltimore calls for tough, physical defense and avoiding mistakes on offense. They held up the defensive end, anyway.
The Ravens repaid Pittsburgh’s earlier generosity with interest in the third quarter. Baltimore ran eight plays from scrimmage in the quarter, gained minus-four net yards, punted once, and turned the ball over three times on a Ray Rice fumble (his first all year), a Ryan Clark interception, and a botched quarterback-center exchange. Pittsburgh gratefully accepted the gifts, scored two touchdowns and a field goal on three drives beginning inside the Ravens’ 25, and took a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The field finally tilted Baltimore’s way a bit, when a Sam Koch punt for 58 yards – his third long punt of more than 55 yards on the day – pinned Pittsburgh deep in its own end. After a three-and-out, Pittsburgh punted from its own 10. Lardarius Webb took the ball on the Baltimore 45, broke up the middle and then to the outside, and raced into the end zone. A holding call brought the ball back to the Steelers’ 29, and Baltimore was in business. A quick strike from Flacco to Heap got them to the 6, but two runs were stuffed, and then Flacco hit Anquan Boldin at the goal line, only to see the ball bounce off Boldin’s chest and out of his hands. Billy Cundiff’s chip shot tied the score with four minutes to go.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line was down to seeds and stems by this point. Both starting tackles were out: Flozell Adams, himself a mid-season replacement, was on the sidelines, ill; Jonathan Scott had limped off at the end of the third quarter and did not return. The Ravens were able to pressure Roethlisberger from the outside and middle, forcing two incompletions. On third and ten, they dropped eight back in coverage, rushing three, giving Roethlisberger time to find Hines Ward at the marker for a first down near midfield.
A nine-yard sack and an incompletion gave the Steelers third-and-19 on their own 38 with 2:07 to play. Baltimore again rushed three. Pittsburgh sent two receivers into the deep right zone. Wideout Antonio Brown ran by the cornerback, the almost-hero Webb, while slot man Emmanuel Sanders occupied the safety. Brown caught the ball over his head, pinned it with his hand against his helmet and controlled it as he went out of bounds at the 4 for a 58-yard gain.
It took three runs for Mendenhall to batter his way into the end zone, putting Pittsburgh up 31-24.
A squib kick following a penalty gave Baltimore the ball in Pittsburgh territory. The Steelers came with blitzes, sacking Flacco and forcing the Ravens to go on fourth and 18. Flacco spotted Baltimore’s other big off-season wideout acquisition, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, open at the 35. The pass went right into his hands and then through them, bouncing like the pass to Boldin off his chest and to the ground. Game over.
It was a sloppy game, a fierce game, a nasty game. But it was no shootout. Baltimore was lucky to get three touchdowns. Pittsburgh was luckier to get four. The Steelers made the biggest play – the deep pass to Brown on third-and-19 with two minutes left in a tied game. The Ravens made the last mistake – inexplicably allowing that late deep strike.
The Steelers move on, to the AFC title game for the fifth time in ten years. Baltimore goes home, knocked out of the playoffs by the Steelers for the third time in those same ten years.
It was the same old story after all.