I initially had no intent to write about last night’s war between the Ravens and Steelers, but after the way the game went, more specifically the ending, how could I resist.
There is absolutely NO question in my mind that this is the best rivalry in football right now. These are two of the top three or four teams in the NFL year in and year out and their two annual meetings have grown to more than games. These two teams have the utmost respect for each other (as they should), but I cannot think of a rivalry, pro or college, with more talk and true hatred between the players and the fans. Everyone respects everone here because of the talent and heart both teams have, but there is not one drop of love lost between anyone involved with these two teams.
The last few years of this rivalry have been more or less one sided. The Ravens squeaked out a win here or there, which was awesome, but for the most part, the Steelers came out on top, especially when it mattered come playoff time. The Steelers had been that metaphoric hump for the Ravens the last three years. The games were always competitive, but Joe Flacco and the offense would always find a way to have one or two complete meltdown plays that were clear game changers (they always seem to involve either Troy Polamalu or James Harrison).
Each year following Flacco’s Rookie year when the Ravens lost to the Steelers in the conference championship, I approached the seasons wondering if it would be the year that we could finally get by the Steelers. In 2009, the Steelers missed the playoffs! We got ‘em! Just kidding we got swept by the Bengals (?) and got knocked out of the playoffs as a wild card team by the other pain out our necks (pun VERY much intended), Peyton Manning.
Last year the Steelers won a tiebreaker with the Ravens, as they finished with the same record, but Pittsburgh had a better record in the division, thus giving them the title and home field advantage in the playoffs. Of course we were destined to meet in the playoffs again. Of course the game had to be on my birthday. Of course I used up all my luck on an 18-point comeback win by Louisville over Marquette earlier that day. Blowing a 21-7 halftime lead on the road in the playoffs against the team you hate the most is shitty. I’ll leave last year at that.
This year had to be different. Fans and players alike refused to continue living with that sour taste in our mouths that the Steelers had left last January, and so many times before that. It was time for this team to take that step and get by the Steelers. It’s almost as if they were a mental roadblock more than anything. These two teams know each other inside and out and are almost mirror images of each other, but for some reason, the Ravens had a tough time putting 60 minutes of winning football together against them. It was tough to swallow.
I don’t think there was one person in Baltimore that was upset when the schedule came out and saw that the Steelers at home was the opening game. What a better way to kick off the season. If you win, you immediately get that taste out of your mouth, and if you loose, you know early on where your team is and what you need to improve on to win a championship. There is no better early litmus test game than that. As we all know, the Ravens came out with a little hellfire in their eyes, forced seven turnovers and beat the piss out of the Steelers 35-7. That game felt amazing, but it was only part of the equation.
Since the Ravens laid eggs against two mediocre to bad teams, the game last night was a must win. There were no positives to falling a game and a half back of Steelers and a game behind the Bengals (?). Third place with this group of men half way through the season is not good enough. It’s not good enough for the fans and I’m sure it’s not good enough for the guys that put in the work, week in and week out.
The game last night was an epic. It was, without question, one of, if not the game of the year up to this point. As I said before, this is the best rivalry in football, and no matter who the winner is, it always entertains. Last night was no different.
I don’t want to sound too outlandish, but last night could be potentially career changing for Flacco, as well as Rookie wide receiver, Torrey Smith.
Joe Flacco, who has been much maligned for the better part of his career by fans and the media, for one night at least, shut everyone up. This game had all the makings of the story Ravens players and fans have seen all too many times. We play a great three quarters against them, somehow find ourselves down late due to crucial mistakes, and can’t seem to make the big plays down the stretch and loose a close game. Right on cue for that, late in the third quarter, James Harrison came around the edge, jumped clear over Ray Rice and forced a sack fumble.
Right on cue, the Steelers marched down and scored a touchdown to take the lead after being down by 10 early in the 3rd quarter and in typical Big Ben Fashion, he was running around and had forever and a day to throw the ball. There is only so long one can cover Mike Wallace. He is simply too fast.
After going three an out and being down by four, things looked rather bad when Baltimore forced a Steeler punt and got the ball back with about 2:30 left and one time out. Oh yea, they only had 92 yards to march on the vaunted Steelers Defense.
This final drive is what I hope could change the direction of Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith’s Career. 92 yard drives to win big road games are what make champions. It is also something Flacco had not really ever been able to do. Just two weeks ago, he had a chance to drive down the field and beat a miserable Jacksonville team on the road and threw an interception instead. Being able to complete this drive, on the road against your bitter rivals is something special. Flacco might have a ceiling, but with a defense like Baltimore has, as long as he can do enough and not make crucial mistakes, this team can go very far.
As for Torrey Smith, I don’t think there is anyone that could have benefitted more from catching that game-winning touchdown. Since the beginning of training camp, this young man has struggled with his confidence and has dropped some extremely catchable passes. While he’s made some amazing plays in his very young career, he has also left Ravens fans cringing at the fact that he actually dropped some of the passes thrown his way. Personally, it brought back slight memories of Travis Taylor, which were frightfully unpleasant.
While Smith might have gotten down on himself, it sure helps your confidence when you have Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and Mr. Ball-So-Hard himself coming up to you after a drop in a game or practice and telling him it’s ok. Just move on and get the next one. Smith did just that on Sunday night. He very easily could have given up after he dropped what would have been the game winning touchdown with 35 seconds left. Instead, the young man kept his head held high and went out 3 plays later made the biggest catch of his life.
It’s plays like these that can really change players like Flacco and Smith. Smith is a rookie and certainly has a long career ahead of him and will only get better. On the other side, you have Joe Flacco, who while many forget is still only in his fourth year in the league, is very experienced and has come under all sorts of fire all year. While he is still young, the NFL is not a patient league. It’s constantly shit or get off the pot time for everyone on an NFL roster. There is always someone willing to step in if you can’t get it done, and fans around Baltimore and the media were not sure Flacco would ever be the answer here.
Those people may be right, but it takes a strong willed man to brush off all the criticism week in and week out and continue to go out and make plays. That drive last night showed me what I had been looking for out of Flacco. He needed a moment in the lights with everyone watching, and he has it. So does Torrey Smith. Having the confidence of doing this in one of the most hostile places to play in the league could and should do wonders for these two, and I believe it will show for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
There is still a great deal of work left to be done by this Ravens bunch. We are exactly where we want to be. The season is half way over, we’re in first in the AFC North, and if the season ended today, we would have a bye in the playoffs and the road to the super bowl would come through Baltimore.
There is absolutely zero room for this team to get comfortable and sit back now. They need to continue to attack and create separation in the division. We may be done with the Steelers (for now), but don’t be fooled, as Suggs said last night after the game, we will see them again in January, and if all goes well for the Ravens, it will be in Baltimore, which isn’t exactly an easy place to play for opposing teams either.
Last night was one of the happiest I’ve been following a game, but it must be short lived. Onto Seattle, but just because I can, enjoy Flacco to Smith as many times as you’d like.