The faith that they can win in the NFL’s toughest environments remains strong. Baltimore defeated Pittsburgh in the postseason for the first time in franchise history and now has won three consecutive playoff road games dating to the 2012 Ravens’ championship run.
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As for the guts, the Steelers’ offense had theirs splattered on Heinz Field.
The scene that best embodied Baltimore’s defensive effort came with roughly 4½ minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was temporarily knocked out of the game with what he described as "a little whiplash on my neck" when his head was driven violently into the turf by Courtney Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil.
Every other part of Roethlisberger’s body probably is hurting as well. The Ravens registered five sacks and two interceptions while limiting the Steelers to 68 rushing yards in the absence of starting running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell, who set the Steelers’ single-season franchise record with 2,215 yards from scrimmage in 2014, was forced to miss the game with a hyper-extended knee suffered in last Sunday’s win over Cincinnati.
"Him not playing definitely worked to our benefit," Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs acknowledged. "Had they had him, that is a whole other weapon."
Baltimore had weapons of its own on display with six drives of six or more plays. Nine players caught at least one pass. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. led the way with five receptions for 101 yards.
An offensive line starting two rookies (left tackle James Hurst and right guard John Urschel) allowed only one sack. That allowed Joe Flacco to continue his playoff magic through an efficient 259-yard, two-touchdown showing without a turnover.
Flacco now has thrown for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past five playoff games. Harbaugh was so pumped about Flacco’s performance that he proclaimed him "the best quarterback in football."
Well, at least in January that argument can be made.
"We were on top of our game today," Flacco said. "We played a nice, patient football game. We were able to kind of break through in the second half."
Baltimore opened a 20-9 lead in the third quarter with a strong second-half effort. After Ravens kicker Justin Tucker hit a 45-yard field goal on the opening series, Baltimore’s defense forced a Steelers three-and-out. Flacco then quickly hit Smith on a beautifully-placed 42-yard completion down the Steelers sideline.
Another impressive strike soon followed. James Harrison had a shot at a third-down sack, but Flacco stepped forward in the pocket as left guard Kelechi Osemele shoved the Steelers outside linebacker out of the way. Flacco, who said he could feel Harrison brush his back, rolled to his left and found Torrey Smith in the back of the end zone for an 11-yard score.
Compare that sequence to how Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered again on its next possession. A deep second-down throw from Roethlisberger to well-covered wide receiver Antonio Brown sailed harmlessly out of bounds. The Steelers were forced to punt again after Dumervil registered his second sack of Roethlisberger on third down.
But just when it appeared the Ravens were going to put the game away, the Steelers struck back. First, Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt recovered an unforced Justin Forsett fumble. Brown then maneuvered through Baltimore’s zone coverage to haul in a 44-yard Roethlisberger pass inside the Ravens’ 1-yard line. Following a false start penalty against Steelers right guard David DeCastro, Roethlisberger connected with rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant for a 6-yard score.
Roethlisberger was intercepted on Pittsburgh’s two-point conversion attempt, allowing the Ravens to maintain a five-point lead. That was as close as the Steelers would get. Tucker hit a 52-yard field goal on Baltimore’s next possession. Suggs then intercepted a Roethlisberger pass that deflected off the hands of running back Ben Tate, juggling the ball and trapping it to his body to keep it from touching the turf. (But Suggs dropped the game ball Harbaugh later tossed to him in the locker room. Go figure.)
On the next play, Flacco found tight end Crockett Gillmore on a short pass that turned into a 21-yard touchdown.
"We just got beat tonight," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We didn’t make enough critical plays and they did."
The Steelers held the football for almost 21 minutes of the first half and outgained the Ravens by a 193-123 margin. Yet it was the Ravens who went into halftime with a 10-9 lead thanks to a 5-yard Bernard Pierce touchdown run and a defense that stiffened as the Steelers began sniffing the goal-line. Three drives that reached as deep as Baltimore’s 20-, 10- and 29-yard line, respectively, ended with Shaun Suisham field goals.
The return of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from a four-game PED suspension paid dividends. Ngata registered one of Baltimore’s three first-half sacks as the Ravens provided steady pressure on Roethlisberger that helped its injury-plagued secondary from getting overly exposed. Roethlisberger threw for six touchdown passes when the Steelers defeated Baltimore in early November.
Baltimore’s victory now will lead to comparisons between this Ravens squad and the one from two years ago. Some would be apt. The 2012 Ravens weren’t clicking on all cylinders either when entering the playoffs. The 2014 Ravens had struggled offensively in the previous three games, which is one of the reasons Pittsburgh was installed as a three-point favorite.
The 2012 Ravens defeated New England in the AFC championship game for the chance to play San Francisco in Super Bowl 47. (Ex-49ers head coach and John’s brother Jim Harbaugh was a guest on the Ravens sideline Saturday night.) The road to Super Bowl 49 also winds through Foxboro as the Ravens will play the Patriots on the road Saturday in a second-round playoff matchup.
Suggs famously ripped on the Patriots after the Ravens’ AFC title game triumph. He laughed and bit his tongue Saturday night when asked about New England, but Suggs did provide a glimpse into Baltimore’s underdog mentality.
Suggs inferred the NFL wants the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl because it would be a marquee matchup rather than one involving the Ravens, who have far less of a national following.
"Let’s see if we can disrupt some people’s plans," Suggs said.
The Ravens already have done that to the Steelers.