Sunday, January 16, 2011

Brown bags Ravens

AFC divisional playoffs:
Steelers 31, Ravens 24

By Mike Batista

The Baltimore Ravens looked scary during the offseason, having acquired wide receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. This gave them some pop in their offense to go with their always stellar defense.

The Steelers, however, trumped the addition of those two stars with a sixth-round draft pick.

With the score tied 24-24, the Steelers faced a third-and-19 from their own 38 with 2:07 left in the game. The first playoff overtime under the new rules loomed -- until Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown.

The rookie from Central Michigan caught the ball on a fly pattern, then went all David Tyree and used his helmet to secure the ball before going out of bounds at the Ravens' 4.

Since returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Steelers' 19-11 win at Tennessee in Week 2, Brown has been overshadowed by draftmate Emmanuel Sanders, who was chosen in the third round.

Sanders had 28 catches this season. Brown had 16. Sanders dressed for 13 games this season. Brown dressed for nine.

But on Saturday, Brown did what Boldin and Houshmandzadah couldn't. He held on to the ball when it mattered most.

The Ravens could have gone ahead 28-24 with four minutes left, but Boldin dropped a 6-yard Joe Flacco pass at the goal line, so they settled for a game-tying field goal.

After Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers a 31-24 lead, the Ravens' last chance came on fourth-and-18 from their own 44. Flacco threw what would have been a first-down pass right into Houshmandzadeh's chest, but proving you can take the player out of Cincinnati, but you can't take the Cincinnati out of the player, Houshmandzadeh let it bounce to the ground.

Game over. Steelers back in the AFC championship game.

The Steelers, however, dropped the ball their fair share of times on Saturday. In fact, infamy beckoned as they faced a 14-point deficit.

An immeasurable comeback

This was one of those games that gets me in a ranking mood.

The Steelers' dramatic win, in which they came back from a 21-7 halftime hole, got me going through the file cabinet of my mind, trying to think of other Steelers playoff comebacks and where this ranks.

I've been watching the Steelers since 1979, but I must admit I needed the Internet the morning after to jog my memory and dust off the Steelers' 36-33 win over the Browns in a 2002 AFC wild-card game. Maybe it's because it was pre-Roethlisberger and pre-Polamalu, but I kind of forgot about that game.

Mathematically, that was a bigger comeback. They trailed 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with less than five minutes left in that one.

But Saturday's comeback can't be measured with a calculator, a slide rule or an abacus. The Steelers not only needed to come back on the scoreboard, they needed to come back emotionally.

In a play that would have been talked about for decades had the Steelers lost, the Ravens' Cory Redding picked up a fumble at the Steelers' 13 and ran it in for a touchdown late in the first quarter.

Terrell Suggs hit Roethlisberger and forced the fumble, although the ball was fumbled forward, making it look like an incomplete pass. Even though there was no whistle, everyone on both teams stood around thinking the play was over.

Except Redding.

The Steelers' flub gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and was reminiscent of blooper clips from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first year as an expansion team. Or maybe the Steelers of the 1930s and 1940s.

Bucco Bruce would have been proud.

They once were lost

The Steelers and Ravens entered this game so closely matched that their previous four games all were decided by three points. The Steelers had won nine of their 17 meetings since 2003, and in those games both teams had scored 302 points.

So in a game where just a blink or a twitch could have been the difference, here was this big, fat gaffe that gave the Ravens seven points.

It was like a guy being on a date and getting caught looking at the women's breasts right after they sit down at the table. Makes it awfully hard to get a second date. The guy's probably one and done.

So it seemed with the Steelers. But their first-half ineptitude didn't end with that play. In the second quarter, Rashard Mendenhall, playing in his first playoff game, fumbled at the Steelers' 16. That led to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Todd Heap and a 21-7 Ravens lead.

Even on the fumble, there didn't seem to be much awareness that there was a fumble. It seemed odd that the pile of bodies wasn't untangling like it usually does after an ordinary play. It turns out it was no ordinary play, and the Steelers were again asleep at the switch.

After the play, Mike Tomlin stared wide-eyed at the scoreboard. His mouth opened briefly, revealing the green gum he chewed throughout the game. But no words came out. He was out of challenges, although that didn't matter because Mendenhall clearly fumbled the ball.

Tomlin, as well as his team, seemed lost.

Now there's a turnabout

The second half didn't start out much better. The Steelers didn't do much with their opening possession and had to punt.

Then, CBS showed its little graphic saying the Ravens had seven road playoff wins, tied for third most in the NFL all-time.

It's funny how having your ass kissed by CBS often turns into the kiss of death in the NFL.

Right after that, James Harrison sacked Flacco. Two plays after that, Ryan Clark forced a Ray Rice fumble, and LaMarr Woodley recovered at the Baltimore 23.

I watched the game at Bob Hyland's Sports Page in White Plains, which is not far from Rice's hometown of New Rochelle. The fumble quieted Rice's homies, who weren't wearing Ravens gear, but to that point had a lot more to cheer about than the dozen or so of us wearing black and gold.

It also led to a 9-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller, cutting the Ravens' lead to 21-14.

Late in the third quarter, Clark intercepted Flacco at the Ravens' 42. The pick, along with the forced fumble, absolved Clark for his role in the Steelers' first-half follies, when he tried to help out Ike Taylor covering Derrick Mason and hit Taylor instead, nearly taking him out of the game.

This turnover set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward, tying score at 21.

Flacco, clearly shaken by the events of the third quarter, fumbled a snap at his own 23 two plays into the Ravens' next possession. Brett Keisel recovered, and it turned into Shaun Suisham's 35-yard field goal, which gave the Steelers a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After the Steelers held the Ravens to the field goal thanks to Boldin's drop, Mendenhall provided the winning points on his 2-yard run.

Bang for the buck

Mendenhall had only 46 yards on 20 carries, but most of those yards came at crucial times. His winning TD was his second short-yardage score. He opened the scoring with a 1-yard run on a second effort in the first quarter.

More than half of Mendenhall's yards came on two carries that sparked the Steelers' touchdown drives in the third quarter.

Immediately after Rice's fumble, Mendenhall ran 14 yards to the 9. Then came the 9-yard pass to Miller that made it 21-14.

On the first play after Clark's interception, Mendenhall went 13 yards to the Ravens' 12. Three plays later, Ward tied it with his touchdown.

It was the first time the Steelers came back from 14 points down in any game since their last playoff loss, in 2007 at home to Jacksonville. They trailed 28-10 in that game and took a 29-28 lead before losing 31-29.

But that Steelers team was decimated by injuries and not expected to go very far in the playoffs.

Expectations are much higher for this team, a team that on Saturday not only escaped the Ravens, but also infamy.

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