Eisenberg: Finding a Way to Finish

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As the Ravens dropped five of seven games to narrow their playoff chances, they found numerous ways to lose. They dropped key receptions. They missed game-winning field goals. They failed to punch the ball over from the one.

It was the last thing any team wants, but they showed a knack for letting their opponents steal away with close, winnable games.

Sunday night against the Steelers, they balanced out that ledger a bit, finding a way to win a pivotal game that vaulted them from the middle of the AFC wild card race into its upper reaches.

Out of the game's 133 plays, two made the difference – a fourth-down gamble by Ravens coach John Harbaugh late in the fourth quarter, and rookie backup Paul Kruger's interception in overtime. The first gave the Ravens life after the Steelers had gone ahead for the first time, and the second set up Billy Cundiff's 29-yard kick that gave the Ravens a 20-17 win.

Finally, it was the Ravens, not their opponents, who came through with the game on the line.

"It's the rebirth of our season. Hopefully we can keep it going," Ravens guard Ben Grubbs said.

The Ravens dealt with a couple of nettlesome issues that had dogged them lately, starting quickly rather than slowly (with a long touchdown drive) and successfully diversifying their offense beyond Ray Rice and Derrick Mason, as Mark Clayton caught seven passes for 129 yards, and Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain combined for 56 offensive yards on 11 touches.

But one could argue that they should have won much more easily. Troy Polamalu, the Steelers' All-Pro safety, was in street clothes because of an injury, and third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon replaced Ben Roethlisberger, the Ravens' nemesis, who sat out after suffering a concussion the week before.

Instead of rolling over the Steelers, though, the Ravens found themselves in a punishing, dead-even game. Dixon played well, especially early, and the Steelers offset his inexperience by rushing for 153 yards as their line opened plenty of holes and the Ravens had tackling problems. Meanwhile, the Ravens scored on just one of their next eight possessions after their opening drive.

Part of the Ravens' problem was the fact that they were playing the Steelers, who, regardless of the circumstances, are still the current Super Bowl champs, difficult to put away. And the Ravens, reprising another recurring theme from this season, hurt themselves repeatedly with discipline issues, losing two fumbles and getting flagged for nine penalties worth 80 yards.

When Dixon put the Steelers ahead, 17-14, on a 24-yard run with six minutes to play, a palpable sense of unease settled over the stadium. And then the Ravens' punt team trotted onto the field when their next drive appeared to peter out at fourth-and-5 on their 46 with 3:31 to go.

But Harbaugh, not generally a wild gambler, sent the offense back in. I liked the move before the snap, thinking it was quite possible the Steelers could run out the clock if they got the ball back. And then Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco spotted Ray Rice one on one with a linebacker and tossed him a pass that became a 44-yard gain, moving the ball to the Pittsburgh 10.

"Great play by Ray. Great play by Joe. It was the execution, not the decision (to go for it), that made the play," Harbaugh said.

They found a way to turn the game around, setting up a Cundiff field goal that forced overtime. And then they found a way to win when Kruger dropped into coverage from his rush end spot, surprised Dixon, swiped a pass, and ran 26 yards to set up the decisive field goal.

Kruger and Cundiff – not a law firm, just a pair of guys who have barely worn the Ravens' uniform but made season-saving plays last night.

In the end, the Ravens won because their offense, after struggling at times, moved the ball with the game on the line, racking up 138 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. Meanwhile, their defense finally made Dixon's inexperience matter, limiting Pittsburgh's offense to 22 yards on its final three possessions.

Were they sloppy at times? No doubt. Did they almost experience a galling defeat? For sure.

But just as they found a way to lose earlier, they found a way to win this time. And as they have learned this season, that is all that matters.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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