Ravens 17, Steelers 14
By Mike Batista
Somehow, we've gone from hoping and praying that the Steelers go 2-2 without Ben Roethlisberger to being disappointed that they went 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger.
At least I have.
We should be happy that despite the serious damage Roethlisberger's four-game suspension could have done to their season, the Steelers came out of it as one of the NFL's elite teams at the season's quarter pole.
But it's hard to step back and look at the big picture right now, because the Steelers' first 4-0 start since 1979 was within their grasp Sunday before Joe Flacco's last-minute touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh gave the Ravens a 17-14 win.
Since they haven't made it past 3-0 since the days of Bradshaw and Mean Joe, we Steelers fans usually get our "you-can't-win-'em-all" vaccination before the leaves change colors.
Just once, I want the Steelers to be that last unbeaten team standing, the team the relics from the 1972 Dolphins gather to watch every week.
Once again, it will not be a Steelers' loss that cues up the sound of the popping champagne cork on ESPN's NFL Primetime. That's probably a good thing.
The Steelers like to let franchises like the Patriots and Colts tempt perfection while they craft their championship mettle away from the spotlight.
They'll be able to do that again this season, because the last two times they won the Lombardi Trophy, they also started 3-1.
On one hand, the Steelers lost Sunday the same way they lost during their title run of 2008, when they occasionally were out-toughed by a quality opponent. There was no evidence of 2009-type leakage, because they were never really in control of this game and therefore didn't choke away a lead.
Unlike many games last season, the defense supplied the Steelers with two turnovers, both in the third quarter.
Unfortunately, both of those takeaways led to missed field goals by Jeff Reed, which makes this a game the Steelers should have won.
The first came when Lawrence Timmons recovered a Willis McGahee fumble at the Ravens' 27 with the Steelers trailing 10-7. The Ravens pushed the Steelers back four yards from there to set up a 49-yard attempt by Reed, which hit the right upright.
With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Ike Taylor intercepted a Flacco pass at the Ravens' 33. The Steelers did move forward six yards this time. But five of those yards were awarded when the Ravens were offsides.
Reed, however, could not take advantage of the Ravens' assistance. This time he was wide left on a 45-yard attempt.
Because of his much-heralded lack of "ball skills," Taylor interceptions are as rare as a model sitting next to dorky guy at a bar and talking to him. The Steelers failing to convert Taylor's interception into points is like that dorky guy burping for about 30 seconds. There goes the model, and the dorky guy doesn't get to display his ball skills.
Speaking of guys who like to go to bars, it wasn't just a win the Steelers squandered Sunday, it was a chance to teach Roethlisberger his lesson just in case he hadn't completely learned it by sitting out four games.
By going 4-0, the Steelers would have virtually guaranteed that their winning percentage would be better without Roethlisberger than with him. It would have driven home the point that he's not bigger than the team, and quite likely flushed from his mind any remaining sense of entitlement that led to his boorish behavior.
Whether or not Roethlisberger is a changed man remains to be seen. While he won't be needed to rescue the Steelers, having him Sunday likely would have been enough to overcome the edge the Ravens had.
The Ravens outgained the Steelers 320-210. Charlie Batch literally went more than an hour without completing a pass. In the fourth quarter, however, he moved the Steelers 93 yards on 13 plays, culminating in Rashard Mendenhall's 7-yard touchdown run with 7:14 left, giving the Steelers a 14-10 lead.
Unfortunately, Flacco isn't afraid of the big, bad Steelers defense. He took the Ravens 65 yards on the ensuing drive before William Gay, showing he's a better nickelback than starter, broke up two straight passes.
The Ravens might have fallen short of the end zone, but field position, which so many Ravens-Steelers games come down to, was in their favor. And that proved to be the difference.
The Steelers had the ball on their own 3 with 2:40 left, but could not get the first down needed to stamp out the Ravens. They went into a shell and ran the ball three times. Something tells me Roethlisberger might have been able to give the Steelers a little more breathing room.
All the Steelers could do was burn the clock, leaving the Ravens with 1:15 and no timeouts. Dan Sepulveda punted the ball to the 50, but on a penalty-strewn day for the Steelers (11 for 88 yards), not even special teams ace Keyaron Fox was immune. He was flagged for holding on the punt, giving the Ravens the ball on the Steelers' 40.
Two passes to Anquan Boldin and two to Houshmandzadeh, two weapons Flacco didn't have in his first two seasons, made up the game-winning drive for the Ravens.
Ray Lewis finished off the Steelers by intercepting Batch's last pass as caretaker of the quarterback position.
So the Steelers lost their first game. That, history tells us, is a sign that the season can really start.