Five thoughts on the Ravens' 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night in an AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Heinz Field:
Ravens' Perfect Game At Perfect Time
Did you see that coming? A tight win by the Ravens, maybe, if the stars aligned, but a 13-point, seat-clearing, silence-generating, all-around-total-whacking of Steeler rear? I don't think anyone expected that. Quite simply, a game can't be more satisfying than this was for the Ravens. With the football world watching, they gave their best performance of the season by far, precisely when they needed it the most. They beat their bitter rivals in a playoff game for the first time, and they did it soundly, on the road, after suffering an embarrassing defeat on the same field just two months earlier. And for the record, yes, the stars did align. The Ravens excelled in all three phases. Their offense dominated, generating long scoring drives all night with an aggressive, balanced approach. Their defense kept Pittsburgh's attack under control, winning the physical battle. The kicking game was solid. It was the football equivalent of a perfect game, a moment to be treasured, framed and hung on the wall.
5 Ravens Stepped Up For Game-Changing Plays
It's always said that you need guys to step up and make plays to win big games. Well, the Ravens had a slew of guys step up late, after the game suddenly was up for grabs following Justin Forsett's fumble. The Ravens were in control, up by 11 points and driving, when Forsett coughed up the ball at midfield. The Steelers immediately turned the mistake into a touchdown, making it a one-score game, and when Pittsburgh's defense backed Baltimore into a third and long on the next series, you could feel the game turning. Shoot, you could HEAR it turning, as the crowd roared. Honestly, I had seen this movie before, and it didn't end well. But this time, the Ravens made plays. On third down, Joe Flacco hit Owen Daniels on a crossing route for a 23-yard gain and a first down – for my money, the biggest play of the game. The Steelers were never the same. When that drive stalled, Justin Tucker nailed a 52-yard field goal to stretch the Ravens' lead back to eight points. On the ensuing possession, the Ravens' Terrell Suggs intercepted a deflected pass deep into Pittsburgh territory, and Flacco immediately hit Crockett Gillmore for a 21-yard touchdown pass. So, here's the roll call of big-play guys when the Ravens really needed it -- Flacco, Daniels, Tucker, Suggs, Gillmore. Makes for a very different movie ending.
Offense Looked Sharper Than It Had In Long Time
From the outset, the Ravens offense looked a lot sharper than it did in the final weeks of the season. After an initial three-and-out in bad field positon, the Ravens drove the ball 80, 70, 59 and 67 yards on their next four possessions, producing two touchdowns and two field goals. What went right? It was crucial that the Ravens establish the run early, and they did, averaging 4.9 yards per rushing attempt in the first half. It wasn't a huge night in the end for the rushing game, but it was enough to give the offense the balance it desperately needs. Flacco took it from there, with help from Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, whose unpredictable play-calling kept the Steelers off balance. On the touchdown drive that broke the game open to an extent in the third quarter, he threw a perfect deep ball to Steve Smith Sr. to get the drive going. On third down in the red zone, he ducked from a blitz, escaped James Harrison, rolled left and threw across his body to an open Torrey Smith in the end zone. Asked why the offense played so much better than it did in December, Smith, who was superb, said the memory of getting whipped by Pittsburgh in November was huge. "I think they were expecting to roll over us again. That's a huge motivation," Smith said.
Secondary Deserves Game Ball
If I'm awarding game balls, I start with the secondary. I mean, come on. Two months ago, Ben Roethlisberger blowtorched the Ravens for six touchdown passes on the same field. This time, he threw five fewer scores and was frustrated by the Ravens' solid coverage. It lapsed just once, when Antonio Brown broke free and caught a deep ball that set up Pittsburgh's only touchdown. Otherwise, the Ravens kept the Steelers receivers in front of them. It's impossible to overstate how much cornerback Rashaan Melvin has helped solidify a unit that has been lambasted by fans all season. The Steelers barely even threw at Melvin, choosing instead to pick on Lardarius Webb, who hung in there and didn't give up any big plays. On the back end, Will Hill ran around delivering jarring hits, and Darian Stewart made a huge play on Brown to save a touchdown. It was a great night overall for the entire defense, which bent but didn't break in the first half, allowing just three field goals as the Steelers dominated possession. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees kept Roethlisberger guessing with his blend of pressures and coverages. The sacks (five) came from all over the place. Yes, the Steelers sorely missed Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell, who was out with a knee injury. But returning to the scene of its greatest embarrassment, the defense exacted sweet revenge.
Flacco was sacked only once, so huge props go to the offensive line, especially rookies James Hurst and John Urschel, who held their own against an aggressive Pittsburgh front … I'm not sure why Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds wasn't ejected for throwing a punch at Gillmore in the second quarter. He correctly drew a personal foul, but it isn't uncommon for players who throw punches to be ejected … Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin riled up the crowd early when he raised his hands in disbelief at a personal foul call, but the call was correct, a clear helmet-to-helmet hit by Mike Mitchell on Jacoby Jones … Flacco didn't suddenly become uncoordinated when he tripped twice while trying to execute handoffs. Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah was pushed back after the snap on both plays and tripped Flacco. Zuttah exonerated himself by recovering a Flacco fumble to extend a scoring drive in the third quarter … It's pretty amazing that Flacco and Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh have never lost a playoff opener, going 6-0 since 2008.
Check out all the best photos from the AFC Wild Card match-up between the Ravens and Steelers at Heinz Field.