Six Questions After Ravens-Steelers Instant Classic, Playoff Outlook
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers just showed a national audience why they still constitute the best rivalry in the league, although it didn't highlight their usual defensive slugfest.
Instead, it featured a back-and-forth offensive shootout with an insane Baltimore comeback after being down 14-0, only to be outdone by an even more insane Pittsburgh comeback clincher in the highest-scoring affair of the storied rivalry.
It was entertaining, explosive and heart-breaking, as the Ravens lost by one point. One freaking point.
As time expired, people were already dubbing it an "instant classic."
"I was sure when firebrands like Hines Ward (2011) and Ray Lewis (2012) left the game that this rivalry would lose its greatness," wrote Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "If anything, it's better. Harbaugh-Tomlin, Flacco-Roethlisberger, Suggs and the new Steelers' defensive stars—who hopefully will have Shazier back one day for the fun. But there won't be many games in this rivalry as good as Steelers 39, Ravens 38.
"A quick stat for you: in the past 12 games of the Steelers-Ravens series, it's six wins apiece. Total points: 275 for Baltimore and, you guessed it, 275 for Pittsburgh."
Below are six Ravens questions in the aftermath of their painful loss:
1) How does the defeat affect the Ravens' playoff outlook?
Before the game even started, we knew that win or lose, the Ravens would still be the AFC's sixth seed. The contest was more about Baltimore tightening its grip on a playoff spot, stopping the Steelers from winning the division and stamping itself as a legitimate contender.
The Ravens (7-6) don't have a stranglehold on that final wild-card spot because of their loss,* *coupled with wins by the Buffalo Bills (7-6) and San Diego Chargers (7-6), but they still hold it because of tiebreakers. Baltimore has the better record against common opponents.
It's brutal to watch the Steelers clinch the AFC North, but …
"The Ravens are still in great shape for a wild-card playoff berth," wrote Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller.
How could that be with such a tight race?
"Thankfully for Baltimore, the combined record of their final three opponents is 8-41 and their final two games are at home," wrote NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman. "The Ravens are still favorites, if not locks to make the postseason."
The Ravens finish the season at the Cleveland Browns (0-13), then host the Indianapolis Colts (3-10) and Cincinnati Bengals (5-8).
Meanwhile, the Bills play the Miami Dolphins (5-7) twice and the New England Patriots (10-2) in Foxboro. And the Chargers play against the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (7-6) and New York Jets (5-7) on the road, and finish hosting the Oakland Raiders (6-7).
"If [the Ravens] can hold serve, they'll finish at 10-6, which will almost certainly be good enough to make the playoffs," wrote Beller. "It hasn't been the prettiest season, but the Ravens are in total control of where they'll be in January. If they take care of business, they'll be back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season."
So the Ravens still seem destined to make the playoffs, but are they are legit contenders?
ESPN says Baltimore failed to make that stamp after losing to Pittsburgh, but The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker sees it differently after such a wild game against one of the NFL's best teams.
"It will gnaw at the Ravens that they held 31-20 and 38-29 leads only to lose a game with significant playoff implications," Walker wrote. "Some fans and analysts will look at this loss as evidence that the Ravens can't finish off an elite team. And it's certainly true that their defense looks nothing like a historic force when pitted against the best skill-position players in the sport.
"Regardless, this isn't the moment for negativity. The Ravens were in danger of fading to irrelevance midway through the season. But we just watched them go toe to toe with one of the best teams in the league, on the road. They're playing better, more exciting football than they did through the first two-thirds of the season. And they're on a realistic path to the playoffs."
2) What to make of the defense folding against Pittsburgh for the second consecutive year despite offseason investments?
Heading into Sunday's contest, Baltimore hadn't allowed a 300-yard passer all season.
Enter Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown against the Jimmy Smith-less Ravens defense, and things weren't pretty. Big Ben amassed 506 yards, the most ever against the Ravens, and Brown put up an eye-popping 213 yards.
Brown is a legitimate candidate for the league's MVP, so you knew he'd get his. He's torn apart opposing defenses all year long. The Ravens won't face another potent offense like the Steelers for the rest of the regular season, but they'll have to clean things up to make a deep post-season run.
"The NFL's best receiver, Antonio Brown, beat Brandon Carr almost at will on the outside," wrote Walker. "[I]f they struggle to cover a team's No. 1 receiver on the outside, and they struggle to cover tight ends and slot receivers underneath, that's a poor formula against any competent offense."
In WBAL's "Wrap Up" show after the game, Pete Gilbert reviewed many of the Ravens' offseason moves to prevent a late-game collapse like we saw against the Steelers last season on Christmas day. The Ravens re-signed Brandon Williams, drafted Humphrey and signed Carr and Tony Jefferson. They drafted a pair of rookie pass rushers in Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.
Former Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta was hesitant to bury the defense, however, as the unit is largely the reason Baltimore is in playoff contention in the first place. It took weeks for the offense to find itself, and the defense carried the weight until it did.
3) Is the Ravens Offense for Real?
Quarterback Joe Flacco and company did their best to prove last week's outing against the Detroit Lions wasn't a fluke. The Ravens have now scored a whopping 82 points in two weeks.
And this time, the Ravens did it against the fourth-ranked defense. Even without linebacker Ryan Shazier, Baltimore's season-high 413 yards was impressive.
The last time the Ravens and Steelers combined* *for over 70 points was on Oct. 5, 1997 … a decade ago … when Vinny Testaverde was the quarterback.
"Beyond the good news about the playoff picture, the Ravens have seemingly discovered a competent offense over the past two weeks," Walker wrote.
5) Why didn't the Ravens continue to ride Alex Collins late in the game to pick up first downs and milk the clock?
It's hard to be too upset with the offense when it shocked everyone with its 38-point outing. Even safety Eric Weddle said that if you told him before the game that the offense would score that much, he 100 percent would've predicted a win.
That said, some are questioning why the Ravens didn't run the ball with 3 minutes, 29 seconds remaining to milk the clock with the team's most explosive playmaker in running back Alex Collins.
"[The] Ravens' play-calling late loses [the] game," wrote Sporting News' Joe Rodgers.
"Collins broke out in a big way, rushing for 120 yards and a touchdown and hauling in two passes for 46 yards. … After the Steelers got within two points with three minutes remaining, the Ravens inexplicably threw the ball twice en route to a three-and-out instead of handing it off to Collins. Pittsburgh didn't have to use any of their timeouts and promptly marched 55 yards on the ensuing series to set up Boswell's field goal."
6) How will Ravens Respond? Could They See Pittsburgh Again?
Mosley and Weddle offered an interesting perspective minutes after the game ended.
As much as it stings, the defensive leaders said Baltimore better put this loss behind them quickly. All their goals are still in front of them, and if they take care of business in these last three games and in the first round of the playoffs, the Ravens could get another crack at the Steelers at Heinz Field.
"Listen, regardless of whether we won or lost this game, we were going to have to come back here [Pittsburgh] anyway if we handle our business," Weddle said.
"We didn't get the result that we wanted. Being in this environment, Sunday night, playing in a rivalry, for a lot of the guys, that's probably the closest they've felt to a playoff game, since we haven't been in a while," added Mosley. "If anything, it should be a morale boost, I would say. We just have to make those minor adjustments so we can finish close games like that."
National Onlookers Can't Believe Seahawks Cut Alex Collins
Local analysts and fans have already pondered the question on numerous occasions, but it was entertaining to watch national analysts ask the same thing while watching Collins rush for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Why, oh, why did the Seattle Seahawks cut this guy?
"The Seahawks have been in a perpetual search for a regular running back for a few years, and it appears they drafted one," wrote ProFootballTalk.com's Darin Gantt. "He just plays for the Ravens now."
"I will never understand how the Seahawks thought Alex Collins was not good enough to make their team this summer," King added.
The answer might have something to do with Collins' early penchant for fumbling, but I really don't know, and I don't care. Despite losing the ball briefly Sunday night (recovered by Mike Wallace), Collins has improved his ball security this season.
And seeing as he's the Ravens' most explosive playmaker, the risk of a turnover has been worth the gamble. He's paid off. In his last five games, Collins has amassed 491 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns.
Marlon Humphrey Answers the Challenge; Continues to Play up to First-Round Billing
The offensive shootout instead of a defensive slugfest was one plot twist to Sunday's game.
But there was a second plot twist.
"With No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith gone for the season, his rookie replacement, Marlon Humphrey, was the obvious story going into the game," Walker wrote. "Humphrey actually held up beautifully. The problem was that almost no one else did."
It was just another example of the rookie playing up to his billing as the No. 16-overall draft pick last April.
"Marlon Humphrey continued to prove he was well-worth the first-round pick," wrote Baltimore Beatdown's Logan Levy. "Marlon Humphrey was all over the field. He had one of, if not the best game of this season. He was rarely targeted because he was blanketing receivers all night. He was making great open-field tackles as well. It was a great performance from the rookie cornerback."
Chris Moore Deserving of More (Pun Intended) Targets
Ravens second-year receiver Chris Moore is slowly and quietly making a name for himself.
He's scored touchdowns in a variety of ways on special teams, and with 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman inactive for the third time this season, Moore saw increased snaps on offense and made the most out of them.
"Chris Moore could be due for an expanded role," wrote Levy. "[He] had one of the better games of his career. It was a game in which he recorded three receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown. He was able to get open and make plays. His role should certainly continue to expand as Jeremy Maclin continues to struggle."
Things may have been even more interesting down the stretch had Moore not left the game with a hip injury. His health is something to watch this week.
Steelers FaceTime Locker Room Celebration to Ryan Shazier in Hospital Bed
Listen, this is a heart-breaking loss no doubt. The Ravens had the win in their hands only to let it slip away.
But even Ravens fans can briefly put that aside and watch a heart-warming moment with Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who got to participate in the post-game locker celebration from his hospital bed via FaceTime. Shazier is hoping to walk again after undergoing spinal stabilization surgery.
At the end of the day, this is a game, while Shazier is dealing with serious life issues. It's good to see him in high spirits, even if it came at the Ravens' expense.