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|01-16-2011, 09:29 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Did Ravens choke? No, Steelers strangled them
Did Ravens choke? No, Steelers strangled them
By Gregg Doyel
CBSSports.com National Columnist
Jan. 15, 2011Tell Gregg your opinion!
PITTSBURGH -- You could say the Baltimore Ravens choked. Or I could. I could sit here and write that the Ravens choked on Saturday, when they dissolved in the second half of a 31-24 loss that allowed Pittsburgh to advance to the AFC Championship Game next week.
But that wouldn't be fair to Pittsburgh. The Ravens were prey, yes, but only because Pittsburgh was the predator. You know that sentence I wrote earlier, that the Ravens "allowed Pittsburgh to advance" next week? Forget that. The Ravens didn't allow a damn thing -- Pittsburgh took it.
Pittsburgh beat the Ravens. Beat them up, beat them down. Beat them physically and mentally.
With the exception of one long pass late in the game, the Baltimore defense did its part. The Ravens defense deserved better than what it got from the offense, but that's been life for Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Co. for years. The defense puts Baltimore in position to dream about the Super Bowl. The offense blows it.
Where's Trent Dilfer when the Ravens need him, anyway?
Instead the Ravens have Joe Flacco, only the third quarterback to start a playoff game in each of his first three seasons in the league, joining Bernie Kosar and Dan Marino. That's the beautiful headline, but it masks the ugliness of the story: Flacco makes like Kosar or Marino to get to the playoffs, but in the postseason he's more like Rex Grossman. Flacco's career passer rating in the postseason is 61.6 -- compare that to his regular-season rating of 87.9 -- and that includes two sub-20 stinkers. Flacco was good last week, yes, but that was Kansas City.
This was Pittsburgh, and the Steelers stole his lunch money and sent him home without shoes or socks. When Flacco's cringe-worthy game was over -- he threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sacked five times -- even the Steelers were sticking up for him.
"Don't say he lost the game," Steelers defensive tackle Casey Hampton said. "Anybody would break under that type of pressure."
Added Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley: "He's a good quarterback. He wasn't out there just making mistakes -- we did that to him."
After trailing 21-7 early in the third quarter, the Steelers did it to almost everybody on the Baltimore offense. Ravens tailback Ray Rice was having a fumble-free season until Woodley dislodged the ball early in the third quarter. That gave Pittsburgh possession at the Ravens 23, and two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Heath Miller to make the score 21-14.
On the Ravens' next possession, Flacco was sacked on first down by headhunting Steelers linebacker James Harrison and hit again by Harrison on a third-down incompletion. Next time he had the ball, Flacco threw an ugly interception to Steelers safety Ryan Clark. That put Pittsburgh at the Ravens 25, and soon Roethlisberger was throwing a touchdown to Hines Ward to tie the score at 21.
Next time? Well, the next time the Ravens had the ball -- this was still the third quarter, by the way -- Flacco sensed pressure that wasn't there and threw the ball into the turf. He looked around for the source of the footsteps he had heard, and found nobody. I wonder, at that moment, if Flacco realized the footsteps had been in his head?
Maybe so. Because on the next play, he fumbled the snap. Pittsburgh recovered at the Ravens 23, setting up a go-ahead field goal. Flacco ended Baltimore's next possession by running out of bounds for a 9-yard sack. He could have saved those nine yards of field position by simply flinging the ball into the ground, but by then Flacco's brain was oatmeal. Mentally, he was done. He ran out of bounds because ... well, because. There's no explaining it.
It was a tale of two halves for Baltimore. LB Terrell Suggs had a monster game, but the secondary was burned consistently. Joe Flacco succumb to the playoff pressure and the receivers couldn't hang on to simple passes.
After a horrible first half the Steelers were almost perfect in the second. Ben Roethlisberger found rookie receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders for big gains. The defense was dominant, holding the Ravens to only 27 yards and two first downs in the second half.
"Situations happened," Rice said, diplomatically. "Fumbles. Turnovers."
The Ravens had committed a franchise-low 20 turnovers this season, and Flacco had been the NFL's second-rated passer over the final 14 games, but coach John Harbaugh wouldn't call his team's Flacco-led implosion in the second half a "surprise."
"Nothing is surprising," Harbaugh said. "That's a good defense we were playing against."
Indeed, that Pittsburgh defense crumpled up various Ravens. There was Flacco dissolving and Rice fumbling. But also there were enormous drops by Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who have Pro Bowls and 100-catch seasons on their resumes. But with the Steelers leading 24-21 in the fourth quarter, Boldin dropped a sure touchdown pass on third down, leading to a field goal for a 24-24 tie. And Houshmandzadeh let Flacco's last pass of the season bounce off his helmet on fourth down with 1:09 remaining.
By then the Steelers had taken their 31-24 lead. The winning touchdown was a 1-yard plunge by Rashard Mendenhall, set up by unlikely receiver Antonio Brown on the final play before the two-minute warning. It was third-and-19 from the Steelers' 38, and Brown -- who averaged only 10.4 yards on his 16 catches this season -- ran right past the Ravens secondary to pull in Roethlisberger's 58-yard pass at the Baltimore 4.
"I just throw it as far as I can," Roethlisberger said. "He got even with the [defensive back], and like we said: 'If he's even, he's leavin'."
That play was vintage Pittsburgh: Don't take what the other team will allow -- take what you want. Take it even from Baltimore, the toughest team in the AFC North. Well, the second-toughest team in the AFC North.
"They always pride themselves on bullying guys, bullying people," Ward said. "Sometimes when you're fighting the bully, you just have to hit them in the mouth."
For more from Gregg Doyel, check him out on Twitter: @greggdoyelcbs
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