Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers Takes Advantage of Sloppy Ravens, But Can't Be Discounted

By now, however, a rivalry of bitterness was inexplicably in full bloom. The prior history, of course, has developed an intense clash, centering a pair of divisional foes by cast members of the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It reminded us, upon hearing the hype of what has become an attractive event in the NFL, about the past episodes with the Steelers and Ravens.

In specifics, it reminded us of the time when the Ravens threatened to place a bounty on Hines Ward, when Bart Scott threatened to "kill" the Steelers' veteran receiver or when the Ravens delivered a nasty blow to the Steelers quarterback's nose. Each time they meet, it turns into a verbal altercation and eventually escalates into a physical skirmish on the field, a heavyweight battle like no other in a contest that becomes so brutal.

Now, along comes the sudden impact of Rashard Mendenhall in a pivotal matchup of mutual hostility, of boundless violence and hard hits that identify a hard-nose, turnover-forcing defense. This wouldn't be a rivalry without any feisty trash talk that notably fueled the meanest rivalry in the NFL, which accelerated earlier this week after Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs wore a T-Shirt featuring a bird with a murky gesture and read, "Hey Pittsburgh."

All of this trash talk formulated a wonderful theater, just as earlier in the week when Suggs called it the "best rivalry in sports." Consider it, however, not only a breakout game for the Steelers, but a breakthrough for the skilled running back Mendenhall. And he never disappointed, even after he declined as a factor in the Steelers' enigmatic running game in prior weeks. So the Steelers survived on the Ravens' second-half meltdown, and clinched a berth to the AFC Championship Game by the heroics of the stud running back.

He's a third-year speedster out of Illinois, a beneficiary who emerged into the spotlight, and if he continues to advertise his knack by bursting to the end zone, he'll clearly be known as an icon with his heroics and athleticism. Between now and as early as February, his presence will be felt immensely—another way to reduce the workload off Ben Roethlisberger, who has proven unflappable in critical situations but also vulnerable at times.

Because it's entirely a total team effort, even though Mendenhall was the primary difference-maker in such a tense, must-needed bout, he probably won't be heard of much over the next week. That is unfair for a helpful player after lifting the momentum and exciting the fans with his explosive eight-yard dash to the 4-yard line on Pittsburgh's first drive. The masses at Heinz Field, dressed in Steeler yellow and black, screamed loudly and swung the Terrible Towels, a frenzy that traditionally defines a die-hard Steelers fan.

He didn't have to finish with all-purpose yards or have to conclude his impressive statement with 50-plus yards, but settled for merely 46 yards on 20 carries. Rather remarkably, he scored two touchdowns and caught a 13-yard pass. In a sense that the Steelers are America's favorite, we were all convinced by the Steelers rally, thanks to the Ravens miscues that contributed to Pittsburgh's miraculous comeback.

As minutes dwindled on the clock, with 1:33 remaining in a tight, nerve-racking AFC divisional playoff game, Mendenhall pushed into the end zone from the 2-yard line to give the Steelers a 31-24 comeback win over the clumsy Ravens on Saturday. That's partly because the Ravens collapsed and inexcusably stumbled. Presumably because they were too relax and took a lead for granted, Baltimore was doomed by the second half in its hardest matchup against the Steelers, a championship-caliber team that trailed 21-7 at halftime when turnovers produced two Ravens touchdowns.

The timing couldn't have been worse, as the Ravens bailed on their aggressive defense and no longer seemed vicious. For whatever reason, they abandoned the bull-rushes and stopped harassing Roethlisberger, which allowed him ample opportunities to elude pressure and find his intended receivers late in the game. Once, they were the fiercest defense around, known for punishing opponents. But by the third quarter the Ravens were harmless—a rarity in their everyday approach that was a non-factor with so much on the line.

If you believed in the Ravens, a monstrous, defensive-minded unit, it's because Baltimore nearly walked out of a hostile territory in celebration. If so, Ray Lewis and Suggs would have flew out of the town with bragging rights, granted by an appearance in the AFC Championship Game next weekend against either the New York Jets or the New England Patriots. As in any hurtful loss, the Ravens were left in despair at the end, and the bench stared hopelessly in disbelief and mourned a dreadful letdown.

It was an avalanche of costly mistakes committed by the Ravens in the second half. All together, Baltimore had three turnovers, and a holding penalty to deny Lardarius Webb's punt return score. It seemed the Ravens, entering the contest with much firepower and confidence, were in position to tie the game late, but Anquan Bolden dropped a pass in the end zone. Then, came the missed opportunity when T.J. Houshmandzadeh, on 4th-and-18 on Baltimore's final drive at Pittsburgh, lost control of the ball that bounced off his mitts.

This certainly wasn't the Steelers' finest game, nor was it Roethlisberger's greatest. Early on, he had trouble with his accuracy, but somehow, he completed a pass to Ward on 3rd-and-10. And on a few plays later, on a third down and sudden-death situation, he heaved one to Antonio Brown, following a shrewd call by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. But mostly his passes were short or either incomplete, pretty much creating a scare for the Steelers by his faulty performance.

The point is, the Steelers' relentless, brutal defense conducted by the brilliant defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who calls useful plays to complete stops, bailed out Pittsburgh with the persistent rushes by James Harrison, the aggressor on the Steelers defense. Perhaps, the toughness from a hard-driven defense saved the Steelers. And as a result, the Steelers sacked Joe Flacco five times, with only very limited protection in the backfield.

And yes, there are plenty of people rooting for the Steelers, as usual, when Roethlisberger has already won two championships with a 9-2 postseason record. The die-hards in Pittsburgh, once furious and irritable with Big Ben over his sexual harassment allegations, can finally eulogize not only him as the franchise quarterback but the Steelers in general for defeating their divisional enemies on the day that defied the laws of wills and resiliency.

The humanity in a city that honors football, among other sports in the town is contagious and spiritual as the fans celebrate in delight, elated by the Steelers. Sure, they took advantage of the Ravens miscues, but either way, they won it.