Brown’s goal-line heroics cap Steelers playoff clincher, sends Ravens home

The score: Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 27

The bottom line: The Steelers were 70 seconds away from a crushing defeat that would have let loose a flood of questions about the competence of their head coach, Hall of Fame quarterback and preening star wideout, when a clutch drive, with a soon-to-be-legendary finish, rescued victory from the jaws of defeat, and left coach, QB and receiver standing as division champs, having eliminated their most hated rival, with a week “off” before the playoffs, and facing a favorable draw that could include two backup quarterbacks. Merry Christmas, indeed.

It was over when… Managing the clock has never been the forte of Ben Roethlisberger or Mike Tomlin, so when the quarterback threw a pass short of the goal line on 2nd-and-goal from Ravens 4 with :14 and no timeouts remaining, there’s a very good chance it would have been the Steelers final play of the game had it come up short. And it looked like it should have come up short with Antonio Brown swarmed by three defenders at the 1 (facemasked brutally by one of them for good measure). How Brown remained standing is a good question, how he had the space and presence of mind to stretch the ball over the goal line is a cosmic one. But all three of those things happened, giving the Steelers the win they so desperately needed.

Play of the day: There can be only one and we used to call it the “Ravens Best Play” but we might have to change that moniker. The Steelers sure looked to be dead in the water early in the fourth quarter, with Roethlisberger handing out picks like Christmas presents and the defense “tackling” like hitting below the waist had been outlawed. But Pittsburgh’s offense awakened after Roethlisberger heaved a prayer up the right sideline to rookie Demarcus Ayers, who had about as much chance of catching the ball as you or I, but that didn’t stop rookie Ravens cornerback Tavon Young from grabbing Ayers and drawing a 35-yard penalty to set Pittsburgh up at the Baltimore 15. And the rest, as they soon will say, is history.

Playoff picture:

+ The NFL hasn’t confirmed it yet, but the Steelers appear to be locked in as the third seed in the upcoming playoffs. They can’t catch Oakland or New England for #2 and the Texans can’t catch them for #4, even if the Steelers lose and Texans win next week.

+ The #3 seed means a first-round home game with the #6 seed and then an away game at the #2 seed if you survive. There are still a lot of moving parts, but it seems pretty likely Miami will be the sixth seed and Oakland will be the second seed, meaning the Steelers road to the Super Bowl could be paved with backup QBs named Matt (Moore and McGloin). We shouldn’t have to remind you that the Steelers lost a playoff game to a rookie QB named Tebow once and lost at Oakland to a team quarterbacked by a wide receiver, but we will.

+ So, if next week’s home finale with Cleveland does, in fact, have no playoff implications, how does Mike Tomlin treat it? Like a preseason game? Like the last preseason game? Or do Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell even see the field? Probably the biggest thing Fitz Touissant could do for this team now (aside from staying in the damn end zone when he catches a kick) is eat up about 25 carries next week.

+ Stephon Tuitt now gets two more weeks to recover from his knee sprain and the status of Ladarius Green becomes a huge story. Green was listed as “doubtful” this week on the Steelers injury report with a concussion, which is technically impossible, because he didn’t practice all week and you have to have to practice to clear the NFL concussion protocol. So was the “doubtful” tag a sign Green was close? Or was it a not-so-subtle sign to Green after the drama of earlier this season?

Hot topics:

+ Do the Steelers have a problem at quarterback or not? After a very average season, Ben Roethlisberger was having a terrible game Sunday through three quarters, misfiring badly on nearly every short pass and throwing two terrible picks. Then, he became the Ben Roethlisberger of old again, leading the team to three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Forget about the bad stuff? Or worry about it?

+ Same goes for Antonio Brown, who sulked through much of the first half, walked off the field mid-interception on a third quarter play and seemed to give up on an end zone pass a little later. Forget about it after the amazing stretch? Or a problem that’s only going to get worse?

+ What about the coach? Is he the smooth-talking genius the national media made him out to be over the first seven years of his career? Or the emperor-with-no-clothes cheerleader that Terry Bradshaw talked about on that FOX talk show that desperately needs a ratings boost? Smart observers like you all know the answer is somewhere in between. But the NFL is a bottom line business and the bottom line is that Pittsburgh has now won six in a row, its longest win streak under Mike Tomlin, and is sitting in pretty decent position to take a run at a Super Bowl. In the ultimate week-to-week league, the needle on “coaching” is pointing up in Pittsburgh. Check back with us next week on that, though.

+ After getting a lot better over the second half of the season, the Steelers tackling was horrendous Sunday, culminating with the Ravens final touchdown by fullback Kyle Juszczyk (that’s a lot of consonants!), who bowled over most of the Pittsburgh defense en route.

+ That’s a lot of negativity for a team that just won a division title. Enough.

+ We said beforehand, this one was on the offensive line and they responded with perhaps their best game of the year, springing a 100-yard rusher and holding the Ravens sackless. Game balls all around.

+ Ezekiel Elliott is a great player with a great future and one day soon might be the best running back in the NFL, but right now, it’s Le’Veon Bell. We would be remiss if we didn’t point out that you better take a hard run at the Super Bowl when you’ve got that guy playing for you at the level he’s playing at right now.

Zebra hunting:

+ Obviously, this crew was overofficious early, culminating in a ridiculous and completely blown personal foul on Ryan Shazier, likely a combination of the silliness Roger Goodell has fostered in the past seven years and the reputation for overzealous hits the series carries with it.

+ But they almost disappeared over the last three quarters, calling the obvious stuff, but generally letting the teams play (including letting an illegal hit by Mike Mitchell on Breshad Perriamn go midway through the fourth quarter).

Game mismanagement:

+ Lost amidst Antonio Brown’s heroics was the fact that had he not gotten into the end zone, the Steelers likely would have lost because they burned a precious, make that PRECIOUS, second-half timeout to avoid a delay penalty on 1st-and-friggin-10 early in the third quarter. Of course, there’s a time and a place where using a timeout to avoid a 5-yard penalty makes sense, but it’s a rare time and place.

+ The Steelers also spiked the ball unnecessarily with about :41 remaining to stop the clock. In general, spikes should be saved for under :20. Before that, get to the line and run a set play you have in place for whatever personnel you have on the field. It takes four, maybe five seconds longer to get the play off. The down is more valuable than the time until the very end.

In the booth:

+ Wow, that was the best broadcast of a Steelers game in a lot of years, result notwithstanding.

+ Tony Dungy and Doug Flutie were great together with each expanding on the other’s points rather than repeating them. Great chemistry for guys who haven’t worked together much. Mike Tirico is always great on play-by-play and three developed a rhythm that went like this: What happened. Why it happened. Specifically why.

+ One of the things that makes Tirico great that goes unnoticed is how he can asses the importance of penalty flags in real time, recognizing quickly whether a flag threatens to wipe out a play.

Sweet tweet: @whoisnator: That’s what a rivalry game looks like, not the trash you see when they play the Bengals. (Blogger’s note: So true. We re-watched the 2010 PIT-BAL playoff game this week and realized we miss Ray Lewis and Todd Heap and will miss Sizzle when he goes. This series has provided great, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, lessons in what it means to compete.)

Next week:The Steelers host the defending Week 16 Super Bowl Champion Cleveland Browns in a game that now doesn’t mean a damn thing to anyone since the Chargers did Pittsburgh a huge favor by losing to the lowly Browns, eliminating the distracting “0-16” narrative from this game. A Browns win would possibly cost them the No. 1 pick in the draft so it’ll be interesting to see how they play it, too.


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