Sun., Dec. 27: Ravens Lose, 23-20
SELF-DESTRUCTING TEAM NEEDS WIN IN OAKLAND
By Joe Platania
Sunday, December 27, 2009
It has long been an NFL truism that the line between winning and losing -- between ultimate success and failure -- is very, very thin.
Close, bitterly-fought, archrivalry games like those between the Ravens and Steelers are perfect examples of this.
And these days, when it comes to close games, the Ravens simply can't win them.
In the seventh game of the season decided by seven or fewer points, Baltimore lost for the fifth time as it fell to Pittsburgh, 23-20, putting a playoff spot in jeopardy and delighting the 64,068 Heinz Field partisans.
The penalty-prone Ravens (8-7), 3-7 in games decided by seven or fewer points over the past two seasons, have temporarily fallen out of the AFC playoff field.
They are now in the seventh spot, one behind the six playoff positions.
Baltimore now has to hope it wins at Oakland against the Raiders next week to secure a second straight postseason berth.
The Ravens, Denver Broncos and New York Jets are all 8-7 and 6-5 in the conference, but according to CBSSports.com and NFL.com, it is Denver that has the fifth (first wild-card) position due to a .513 strength-of-victory percentage. The Jets have beaten teams with a .492 cumulative record, with the Ravens' victims adding up to .387.
Strength of victory is the fifth tiebreaker. The fourth tiebreaker, record against common opponents, isn't applied until all games have been completed.
However, if the Ravens win, their head-to-head win over Denver will be enough to get them in and it won't matter what the Jets do in their game against Cincinnati.
Denver has to play a Kansas City team that it has played once already, but has also taken on Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Jets' game against Cincinnati affects the Ravens, which played the Bengals twice. Also, the Ravens' game against Oakland affects the common-opponent tiebreaker with the Jets and Denver.
As for Sunday's results, the first domino fell when Cincinnati outlasted Kansas City to wrap up the AFC North Division, relegating the Ravens to go for a wild-card berth against a crowded field.
What helped Baltimore, which lost to a team with a losing record for the first time all year, is the fact that Jacksonville, Miami and Tennessee all lost this weekend, basically eliminating those teams.
In Philadelphia, the Denver Broncos also lost, but due to wins by several of their early-season victims, their strength-of-victory number went up and boosted them from sixth to fifth.
Also, the Ravens' conference mark is 6-5, better than that of Pittsburgh and the Houston Texans (5-6 each), giving them temporary tiebreaker advantages over those two clubs.
However, the New York Jets' win over Indianapolis -- their fourth win in their last five games -- vaulted Rex Ryan's team from the ninth to the sixth seed and the last wild-card spot, dropping the Ravens to seventh.
Here's how the wild-card race looks now, with overall and conference records (top six seeds make the playoffs):
5. Denver, 8-7, 6-5 - has strength-of-victory edge over NY Jets
6. NY Jets, 8-7, 6-5 - has strength-of-victory edge over Baltimore
7. Baltimore, 8-7, 6-5 - better conference mark than Houston or Pittsburgh
8. Houston, 8-7, 5-6 - has common-opponent tiebreaker edge over Pittsburgh
9. Pittsburgh, 8-7, 5-6
For his part, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was obviously frustrated with the team's 11 accepted penalties that resulted in 113 costly yards, including two that negated touchdowns.
The Ravens lead the AFC with 1057 penalty yards, a figure just ten yards short of the single-season team record set in 2005.
"You can (blame the) penalties," the coach said. "You can point the finger at whatever you want... you can write the article any way you want.
"We're going to Oakland."
However, the Ravens had a chance to win, even after dealing with a nightmarish fourth quarter that had not only seen the pair of scores called back, but wideout Derrick Mason injured.
After Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed kicked a 38-yard field goal to put the Steelers in front, 23-20, with 5:25 to go, Mason returned to the game after hurting his left leg and hip as a result of getting hit by Steeler defenders Tyrone Carter and Lawrence Timmons.
What also helped was a clutch kick return by backup Jalen Parmele (see Notes), who ran the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Pittsburgh 49-yard line.
Mason (77 yards, seven catches) then caught a right-sideline pass for a first down at the 38, but the Ravens were soon faced with third-and-7 from the 35. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley then broke through to sack quarterback Joe Flacco to take the Ravens out of field-goal range.
Going for it on fourth-and-10, one timeout and 2:34 left, Flacco (13-for-25, 166 yards, two touchdowns, interception, four sacks, 83.1 rating) was again sacked by Woodley and lost the ball to rookie defensive lineman Evander Hood, his first NFL interception.
Cornerback Frank Walker's illegal-contact call negated a subsequent Tom Zbikowski interception, and the Steelers had their ninth win in their last 11 home games against the Ravens.
But they had to hold off a bunch of game visitors.
Down 20-10 at halftime, all the Ravens had to do was emulate Flacco's calm demeanor. They didn't need to panic for several reasons.
First, the long-dormant Ravens pass rush had reached Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for three first-half sacks. For the most part, the veteran signal-caller seemed rattled just enough to launch several throws wide of their targets.
For one thing, they had punctured the Steelers' top-ranked rushing defense for 84 first-half yards. For another, they had run 13 plays in Pittsburgh's half of the field.
The problem was, the Steelers controlled field position and had taken 24 snaps in Ravens' territory, winning the field-position battle and riding Roethlisberger's steady hand in getting a decisive halftime edge.
The Ravens had to keep Roethlisberger (17-for-33, 259 yards, touchdown, interception, four sacks, 75.2 rating) off the field, so they went back to Ray Rice carrying the ball and extra tight end Chris Chester blocking for him.
With that combination, they made their way downfield to open the second half and build on their league-high 113-point third-quarter output. The Ravens' 216 second-half points were second only to New Orleans before Sunday.
Rice (141 yards, career-high 30 rushes) ran for 30 yards on five plays -- becoming the first back in two years to rush for 100 yards against Pittsburgh (see Notes) -- and caught a 14-yard swing pass to the left to help the Ravens drive from their own 36 to the Steelers' 7, where they faced third-and-5.
From there, tight end Todd Heap got his second touchdown of the day by leaping atop overmatched cornerback William Gay for a seven-yard score to complete the ten-play, 64-yard drive and cut the Steelers' lead to three points.
DROP ARE COSTLY
The rally continued on Roethlisberger's next pass.
The ball was intended for Santonio Holmes (86 yards, five catches, TD) on the sideline, but Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth picked it off -- the Ravens' 14th interception in the last seven games -- and ran for what looked to be a touchdown. Linebacker Terrell Suggs was called for a block in the back, but the Ravens had the ball on the Steelers' 37.
Another end-zone pass for Heap (37 yards, two catches, two TDs) was incomplete, even though Steelers rookie corner Ryan Mundy seemed to have the veteran tight end in an arm-bar hold that wasn't called.
Kicker Billy Cundiff tied the game with a 35-yard field goal into the tricky, wind-filled open end of Heinz Field with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
The Ravens continued to dominate the quarter with another Rice-filled possession that went from their own 35 to the Steelers' 32. During the drive, tackle Oniel Cousins was injured and Tony Moll had to be inserted into a reconfigured offensive line (see Notes), even though Cousins would return.
From there, Willis McGahee swept around left end for a 32-yard touchdown, but receiver Kelley Washington was called for holding.
"Every game you're going to have those situations," Heap said. "You have the high for one second, and then you're on a low. You have to erase the lows in your mind and focus on the next play.
"We're all at that point right now, where we have to focus on bigger things next week to worry about."
As the fourth period began, the worm seemed to turn.
Mason would drop a wide-open end-zone pass; that, plus an ineligible-man-downfield call, threatened to railroad the drive. "It happens, and you move on," Mason said of his drop. "But that's one I got to have. I can't afford to relax in that situation."
But what was really costly was Cousins' late hit on Woodley after a play, taking the Ravens 15 yards further back.
However, Baltimore had run 22 snaps to the Steelers' four, held the ball for 12 minutes and held a 74-0 rushing advantage in owning the third quarter, something it couldn't do at all in the first half.
EARLY TROUBLE AVERTED
The Ravens were in a field-position hole throughout most of the first half, and it kept them on the defensive.
After Pittsburgh won the coin toss, two passes from Roethlisberger to franchise all-time receiving leader Hines Ward (37 yards, four catches) drove the Steelers from their own 28 to the Ravens' 38 before they had to punt the ball away.
Working from inside their own 15-yard line, Flacco faced the kind of pressure the Ravens couldn't get on Roethlisberger in the early going.
Woodley (team-high ten tackles, two sacks), on a streak of seven straight games with at least a half-sack, got past the Ravens' offensive line and hit Flacco's arm on a third-and-9 pass.
The ball fluttered right into the arms of linebacker James Farrior, the same man who had gotten burned on Rice's infamous fourth-down catch-and-run play that set up the game-winning field goal last month in Baltimore.
It was only the Steelers' ninth pickoff all season, none of them by their cornerbacks, and the first in their opponents' last 198 throws covering the last six Steelers games.
However, the Ravens have allowed only 23 points off their own giveaways, and the defense stepped up again once the Steelers were set up on the Ravens' 8.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, the victim of the Ravens' AFC-best 44th negative rush earlier in the drive, helped the Ravens' cause by dropping an easy touchdown pass at the goal line.
But Foxworth -- the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week -- tipped away a third-down pass in the back of the end zone that was intended for Holmes. Roethlisberger, the reigning conference Offensive Player of the Week, had been foiled on the opening drive.
Jeff Reed's 26-yard field goal got Pittsburgh on the board first, but the Ravens' defense -- the AFC's best in goal-to-go situations, allowing less than 50% touchdowns in those situations -- could claim a moral victory.
Not only that, but Baltimore's overall red-zone defense is the AFC's best (42% touchdowns allowed), and the momentum the stop gave the team seemed to propel the offense.
RAVENS TIE, BUT
Flacco put the no-huddle into motion, finding Mason for 11 yards -- making him the 22nd receiver to go over 11,000 receiving yards -- and a healthy Kelley Washington for 27 yards to the Steelers' 17.
But despite two Rice runs for 23 yards on the drive, it was up to Cundiff's 27-yard field goal to tie the game at the 5:18 mark of the opening quarter.
With Baltimore still going without safety Ed Reed, tackle Jared Gaither and linebacker Tavares Gooden, it was again up to the backups to come through.
Fast, athletic linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- an undrafted free agent from Georgia who made the team despite being hurt in training camp -- nearly got a sack on Roethlisberger, but the deflected pass found its way to rookie Mike Wallace (83 yards, three catches) for a first down at the Ravens' 35.
Wallace came into the game with 34 catches, fourth among all rookie wideouts.
On the next play, a fast-charging Ellerbe got blocked on Willie Parker's 13-yard end run to the 22. A subsequent Haloti Ngata sack bailed out his young teammate, and the Steelers had to settle for Reed's 39-yard field goal to take a 6-3 lead.
However, a 21-yard Sam Koch punt -- partially due to a high snap from sore-armed long snapper Matt Katula -- gave the Steelers the ball on the Ravens' 43 as the second quarter began.
Roethlisberger's flanker screen to Holmes -- who had a touchdown in six straight games against the Ravens before Sunday -- gained 13 yards, and a subsequent Mendenhall run got five more.
On third-and-3 from the 23, backup cornerback Chris Carr (team-high nine tackles, forced fumble, one quarterback hit), filling in for the injured Lardarius Webb, was called for pass interference on Ward as he threw him to the ground inside the five-yard line, the Ravens' league-high 13th infraction of that type this year.
It also set up the Steelers on the Ravens' 5-yard line for their second goal-to-go situation of the day.
Two plays later, Mendenhall (36 yards, 17 rushes, TD) got his seventh rushing touchdown of the year from four yards out and went over the 1000-yard mark for the season, only the seventh Steeler to reach that barrier. Pittsburgh had a 13-3 lead barely two minutes into the second quarter.
BACK TO BASICS
The Ravens had to clear their heads and go back to what has worked for them in this and so many other seasons, running the ball.
Even though Pittsburgh brought the NFL's best run defense into the game, allowing just 83 yards per contest, the Ravens turned to Rice, who had 70 yards at halftime.
In a 61-yard, seven-play drive that got them back into the game, Rice ran the ball three times for 19 yards as the Ravens tried to get pressure off Flacco by making the Steelers respect play-action fakes.
Facing a second-and-ten at the Steelers' 30, Flacco called the Ravens' first timeout of the day. When the break was over, the subsequent play made the Ravens look like genuises.
As Flacco ran the play-action fake, Heap ran the same out-and-up pattern that had burned Steelers safety Troy Polamalu three years earlier in the same corner of the same field.
But Polamalu was missing his tenth game of the year with recurring knee problems and cornerback DeShea Townsend was promoted to play as a starter against Baltimore due to his experience.
However, it was Heap that used his savvy to outjump Townsend and catch Flacco's slightly-underthrown ball. He fell into the end zone for a touchdown that cut Pittsburgh's lead to three points.
The defense responded with the kind of voracity that has been its trademark.
Carr knocked the ball from Mendenhall on the Steelers' next possession and Ray Lewis recovered it. But Rice was hit by James Harrison and fumbled it back to Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor on the very next play, Harrison's first forced fumble in a month.
But not even a 26-yard short-pass-and-run to Wallace could keep Pittsburgh's momentum going as linebacker Antwan Barnes sacked Roethlisberger and forced a Daniel Sepulveda punt that flew into the end zone.
Roethlisberger regrouped his team and engineered what looked to be a back-breaking 94-yard, seven-play drive that extended their lead to 20-10 just before halftime.
For the first time all day, the Steelers were backed up as badly as the Ravens had been earlier due to a punt that had been downed inside the Pittsburgh ten-yard line.
But on third-and-12 from the 4, Suggs -- who nearly intercepted a flanker screen for what would have been a sure score moments earlier -- jumped offsides, so Roethlisberger audibled to a free deep play.
Walker got matched up with Wallace, but the rookie easily won that battle by hauling in the 45-yard pass near midfield.
Tight end Heath Miller (35 yards, three catches) then got wide open over the middle for 19 yards to the Ravens' 32 and the Steelers called timeout with 54 seconds to go before the intermission.
Just as Wallace did, Ward -- the longest-tenured NFL wideout with his current team -- got a favorable matchup, beating Ellerbe to the sideline for a nine-yard catch that put Roethlisberger over 4000 yards for the season. He is the first Steelers quarterback to reach that mark.
The Ravens were reduced to blitzing Roethlisberger, and paid dearly for it.
Foxworth came off the corner on the same kind of delayed blitz the Steelers had run earlier, but that left Holmes alone on the right side.
Holmes faked out Dawan Landry and plowed through safety Tom Zbikowski on the goal line to complete the 24-yard touchdown in a second quarter that has proven to be Pittsburgh's most successful period of the year.
The Steelers have outscored their opposition 123-72 in the 15 minutes before halftime and the Ravens, before Sunday, the Ravens were winless (0-5) when trailing at intermission.
But what had to make Pittsburgh feel even better about their chances was the fact that in 16 minutes of possession, it had 20 points, fulfilling the point-per-minute goal laid out by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
The Ravens would rally in a game fashion before self-destructing.
"I don't feel like we gave it away, not at all," Flacco said. "Obviously, penalties don't help you... but we'll be proud of our effort and get ready for Oakland."
For now, the team is walking a fine line.
The one that separates the Ravens from playoff status has grown thinner and blurrier.
NOTES: The Ravens are one of just three teams to finish the regular-season schedule with two straight road games; Jacksonville and Kansas City are the others. Baltimore travels to Oakland for a 4:15 game Sunday against a team it has beaten in five of six lifetime meetings, including the 2000 AFC Championship Game. But the 2003 division winners lost to the Raiders, 20-12...
Special-teamer Jalen Parmele became the fifth Raven to return kicks, averaging 29 yards on five returns... The Ravens-Steelers rivalry has taken on such a profile that Sunday's game was the first between the two to start at 1 p.m. since Christmas Eve, 2006, a 31-7 Ravens win... Mason now has 862 career catches. He is tied for 14th on the all-time list with Jimmy Smith...
Tackle Oniel Cousins had to leave the game in the third quarter when the Steelers' Casey Hampton fell on his left leg. Tony Moll substituted... Pro Bowl teams will be announced Tuesday at 7 p.m. Fullback Le'Ron McClain, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed won the fan vote, one-third of the total. Players and coaches voted last week to complete the tally...
The Ravens and Steelers split their two-game season series for the ninth time in 14 years... The Ravens have now played 125 straight games without a shutout loss. They have scored points in 221 of 223 regular-season contests and haven't been blanked on the road since a 37-0 Pittsburgh loss in 1997. Including postseason, Baltimore has scored in 232 of 234 games...
The Ravens wore their white road jerseys with white pants. The Steelers donned throwback uniforms -- gold helmets, black jerseys, white pants -- just as they did in a 2007 home Monday-night blowout over Baltimore... The Steelers won the toss and chose to receive... Rice had 155 total yards, the 12th time in 15 weeks he went over the century mark in total offense...
Linebacker Jarret Johnson's consecutive-games streak reached 96, long snapper Matt Katula has a streak of 79 in a row and Mason marked 121 straight, the last 79 of them with the Ravens. The team's sack leader, Peter Boulware (1997-2005), has the team-record consecutive games streak at 111, one more than Matt Stover, who missed only one game...
The Ravens have five receiving targets that have caught 30 or more passes this year, tied for the second-most in team history with the 1996 and 2005 teams... Both the Ravens and Steelers were five-for-13 in third-down conversion plays... Seven Ravens starters have missed 22 games this season... McGahee and McClain each rushed for 17 yards; the team had 175...
The Ravens' defensive line got most of the team's four sacks on Roethlisberger. Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata had 2.5 of the sacks with Barnes and Carr getting the other 1.5... Walker and Dawan Landry each had seven tackles... The Ravens ran the ball 38 times and passed it on 29 occasions, including sacks allowed. The team's run-pass ratio is minus-90...
Quarterback John Beck was deactivated for his 32nd straight game, including one playoff contest last year. Besides Beck, Reed, Gaither and linebacker Tavares Gooden, the other inactive players were defensive tackle Kelly Talavou, newly-signed defensive back Keith Fitzhugh, guard David Hale and promoted practice-squad wide receiver Justin Harper...
The Steelers sat Polamalu, quarterback Charlie Batch, guards Kraig Urbik and Chris Kemoeatu, cornerback Keenan Lewis, defensive tackle Ra'Shon (Sunny) Harris, running back Carey Davis and newly-signed veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway... Miller, Ward and Holmes all have over 70 catches, the first time in Steelers team history that has happened...
Heinz Field hosted its 293rd consecutive sellout crowd in as many dates since it opened... Before Sunday, Pittsburgh hadn't allowed a 100-yard rushing performance in 32 straight regular-season games. The last to reach the century mark against the Steelers was Jacksonville's Fred Taylor, who gained 147 yards in a 29-22 Jaguars' win on December 16, 2007...
Ward caught a pass for the 177th consecutive game, the longest streak among active receivers. It also ties him with Seattle Seahawks legend Steve Largent for the sixth-longest streak all-time, two games behind fifth-place Tim Brown. San Francisco standout Jerry Rice, likely a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee this coming summer, has the record in this category at 274 straight...
The officiating crew was led by veteran referee Pete Morelli, working his first Ravens game since the "Dawson Double-Doink" overtime home loss to Cleveland two years ago. Morelli appeared at the Ravens' training camp in Westminster this year to work practices and conduct the rule-change seminars... Gametime temperature was 39 degrees with partly cloudy skies.