Week 14 Recap: How The North Was Won

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Christmas arrived early for members of Steeler Nation as they watched their team come from behind to pull out a thrilling last minute victory over the arch nemesis Baltimore Ravens, 13-9.  This win is truly the gift which keeps on giving as the Steelers have now clinched both an AFC North title and a guaranteed first round bye.  Also, thanks to Yuletide favors from the Houston Texans, next weekend’s tilt with the Titans is set to determine who has home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

I’m not one to say “I told ya so.”  Okay, I am.  But in this case, you have to trust me when I say I knew after Baltimore’s second offensive series the Steelers were going to win the game.  For all the praise heaped upon rookie QB Joe Flacco, much of it well-deserved, it was clear when the Ravens chose to run the ball on 3rd and long that they had zero confidence in Flacco’s ability to do anything more than manage the game.  You can’t hide your quarterback in the NFL because sooner or later they all have to make plays.

Of course, Flacco didn’t exactly inspire confidence right out of the gate.  His third pass of the afternoon was batted skyward volleyball-style by Can’t See Me Ike Taylor where it was snatched out of the air by S Ryan Clark.  Flacco only completed 1 out of his first 8 passes and finished the game a miserable 11 for 28 for only 115 yards with no TDs.  Although Blitzburgh only had 2 sacks, he was clearly bothered by the pressure as he danced around the pocket while repeatedly rushing passes or overthrowing his targets.  He may be a good one for many years to come but now is not his time.

The Ravens defense lived up to their billing.  They are a hard-hitting bunch who make you scratch and claw for every inch of turf you gain.  They created two turnovers and did a good job stopping the run while preventing any big plays in the passing game.  The one surprising thing is despite blitzing at least 75% of the time, Baltimore managed only 3 sacks, one of which was due to the only dumb play QB Ben Roethlisberger made all game.  He ran around for way too long and by the time he decided to throw it away, Terrell Suggs was all up in his grill causing a sack-fumble.

In fact, the Steelers played a pretty sloppy game for the first three quarters.  They were losing the battle for field position (as is usually the case because of their horrid punters, although Mitch Berger did manage to break the magical 40 yard average and made a sweet tackle on a long return.).  WR Santonio Holmes fumbled to kill one drive.  Ben fumbled to end another.  Several of their best runs were called back on holding penalties.  The only thing keeping the game close was the beautiful violence of their defense repelling Baltimore at every turn, limiting them to three FGs despite excellent field position.

Today’s defensive standout was last year’s first round draft pick LB Lawrence Timmons.  He made the two most important plays of the game in the fourth quarter.  After the Roethlisberger fumble, Baltimore was on their 30 with a chance to drain valuable time off the clock.  Two runs went nowhere and then on third down Flacco hit Derrick Mason between the numbers.  Timmons obliterated him at roughly the same time causing the ball to go flying through the air where Deshea Townshend narrowly missed his second huge INT in two weeks.  Still, forcing a punt and the subsequent Steeler drive which netted 3 points was where the momentum of the game shifted.

Timmons second big play, and pretty much the play of the game, was his strip-sack of Flacco with four and a half minutes left.  Even though Baltimore recovered, the loss of yardage took them out of field goal range.  Had they gotten three, all they would’ve needed was another FG to pull out a win at the end.

Despite their understandable struggles against a really good defense, the Steeler offense actually looked decent this week.  I already mentioned the line, which afforded Big Ben ample protection considering he chucked 40 passes.  They put together one of their nicest drives of the season in the first half, mixing pass and run in a possession which chewed up six and a half minutes and resulted in a FG.  Bruce Arians clearly wanted to get the ball into Fast Willie Parker‘s hands as he called a number of runs and screens for him.  We all like Mewelde Moore and he may have saved our season by stepping up like he did but when you watch FWP make his darting cuts, turning 3 yard gains into 7, you realize what a major weapon he can be.  Although they fell away from running in the 2nd half, Arians did show a bit more patience and desire to mix up the playcalling.

Speaking of mixing things up, one of the awesome things about our receiving corps is you never know who is going to have a big game.  Last week, Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes were the go-to guys.  This week, Hines Ward (8 for 107) and Tiffin Thunder Nate Washington (5 for 76) stepped up.  Of course, none of them would’ve done anything without Ben putting the ball right on the money.  He isn’t flashy and it’s not always pretty but the man is CLUTCH.  As I said earlier, in the NFL you need a QB to make the throws when you need them made and Big Ben does that.

Before I wrap this up, I have to mention two controversial plays which no-nothing sportscasters and whiny Baltimorons will no doubt cry about for weeks to come.  On the Steelers first FG drive, they converted a 3rd and 1 which looked iffy.  Unfortunately, unless you’re standing on the field exactly parallel to the line of scrimmage, it’s hard to tell exactly where the markers are.  The Magic Yellow Line is not official and is oftentimes a good half yard off.  The second and most discussed call was Holmes’ game winning TD.  The refs blew it.  I’d like to justify their explanation but it seemed to be “his feet were in the end zone so it’s a TD” which I believe is wrong as you’re supposed to go by where the ball is.  However, Ray Lewis of all people made the most reasonable comments on the situation; the call may have cost them those last 7 yards but the allegedly super-awesome D giving up 90 yards prior to that is where the blame should lie.

Well, my fellow Black and Gold fans, it’s been a long road but we have accomplished what many thought was impossible.  Despite the toughest schedule in NFL history, we’ve amassed 11 wins, won our division, and earned a first round bye.  Best of all, this team seems to be peaking as we move into the final two games of the season.  I don’t want to sound greedy but I’m starting to believe the Steelers’ list of accomplishments isn’t finished yet.

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