In the lead-up to the Ravens' showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, everyone involved was expecting a defensive battle. While nobody left disappointed after a clash of the NFL's top two units, it was the Steelers' offense that provided some late-game fireworks and captured a 13-9 victory.
Pittsburgh drove 92 yards in 12 plays to score the winning touchdown with 43 seconds on the clock, their second fourth-quarter comeback in as many weeks.
Last Sunday, the Steelers notched 17 points in the final period to dismiss the Dallas Cowboys 20-13. This time, they used their only lead of the afternoon to drop Baltimore to 9-5 and clinch the AFC North crown.
The Ravens still remain in the playoff hunt for an AFC wild-card spot, but continuing a home winning streak against Pittsburgh that dated back to 2002 would certainly have been sweeter.
"It's easy to say you should do this, you should do that, but our guys are out there fighting their hearts out to get it done," said head coach John Harbaugh. "We came up short. They're the division champs - let's give them credit. Now it's our task to make the playoffs."
Such a task would have been easier had the Ravens taken their 10th victory, an outcome that seemed likely until wideout Santonio Holmes hauled in a 4-yard scoring pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to cap the Steelers' final march.
Even after Holmes' catch, a different outcome was a real possibility, as it was unclear whether the football had broken the goal line.
Facing third-and-goal on Pittsburgh's 4-yard line, Roethlisberger bought some time with his feet in the face of the Ravens' pass rush before zipping a bullet through the secondary. Holmes had two feet in the end zone but grasped the ball outside of it as Ed Reed tackled him to the 1-yard line.
It was originally ruled that Holmes did not score, but after a booth review, official Walt Coleman reversed the call when he saw a tip of the ball cross the barrier.
"When he gained control of the ball, the ball was breaking the plane and then he fell into the field of play," Coleman said afterwards. "To have a touchdown, all you have to have is a catch - which is the two feet down - possession and control of the ball breaking the plane."
It was a stunning shock in a battle that was dominated by defense.
Matt Stover booted three field goals for the Ravens, while Pittsburgh came away with a pair of three-pointers before the game's only touchdown.
The Ravens were clinging to a 9-3 lead when linebacker Terrell Suggs sacked Roethlisberger on the first play of the fourth quarter and jarred the ball loose. The fumble popped into the hands of defensive tackle Brandon McKinney on the Ravens' 37-yard line.
But Baltimore could not convert the turnover into positive yardage and ended up punting after a three-and-out. The Steelers then drove all the way to the Ravens' 12 with the help of a 30-yard completion to receiver Hines Ward, setting up a 30-yard field goal from kicker Jeff Reed.
The Ravens were forced to punt again when rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked by Lawrence Timmons and coughed up the football. The play had started on Pittsburgh's 27-yard line, but was pushed out of Stover's range when Willis McGahee recovered the flub at the 41.
"I was sliding to my left and wanted to get rid of the ball," said Flacco. "That's what you've got to do in that situation - get rid of the ball so you give yourself at least a chance to get the field goal."
Instead, the Steelers took possession on their own 8-yard line with 3:36 remaining. Roethlisberger found Nate Washington for 24 yards and Ward, who finished with eight catches for 107 yards, for a 10-yard connection to move to the red zone.
Roethlisberger's first crack at the end zone fell incomplete to tight end Matt Spaeth, but his second attempt was true, even if it did generate its share of questions.
"If you get caught up in all of that, then you worry about fines and all of that," stated linebacker Ray Lewis. "We lost the game. That's the bottom line. There aren't any freakin' excuses. A million times if you play it, of course, he didn't get in, but they called it the way they called it. You've got to move on. That didn't win or lose the game for us."
In fact, the Ravens had other opportunities to add more points.
Baltimore got inside the Steelers' 20-yard line on three separate occasions, mainly by committing to the rushing attack against the NFL's top run defense. With offensive tackles Jared Gaither, Willie Anderson and Adam Terry making up an unbalanced line, the Ravens found success on the ground.
Fullback Le'Ron McClain totaled 87 yards on 23 carries, while Willis McGahee added 18 yards on six attempts.
But when the Ravens did manage to creep within shouting distance of the end zone, Stover's leg did the damage. He hit from 28, 26 and 28 yards, the 63rd time in his career Stover has split the uprights at least three times in a game.
"They did a good job of making us hit the short ball and running up and making their tackles," said Flacco, who finished 11-of-28 for 115 yards and two interceptions. "They've been good all year in the red zone. But, at the same time, we wish we would've come out with more than field goals."
Baltimore must now turn things around on a short week before playing the Cowboys next Saturday night in the final game at Texas Stadium.
Following such a difficult loss, it won't be difficult for the Ravens to put Roethlisberger's heroics behind them.
"At the end of the day, they got the win," receiver Mark Clayton said. "We fought hard, but we didn't make enough plays. That touchdown won the game for them. All we can do this week is work hard, get better, and go down to Dallas and put our best product on the field."