Leading by nine points with less than 7 minutes left, the Ravens defense stumbled down the stretch for the second consecutive year.
On one hand, the Steelers’ offensive performance on Sunday Night Football was, as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, shocking.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for more than 500 yards, wide receiver Antonio Brown put up over 200 and running back Le’Veon Bell scored three touchdowns.
On the other hand, the Ravens’ 39-38 loss felt all too familiar. Just like last year in Pittsburgh on Christmas, Baltimore’s proud defense faltered down the stretch and blew a late lead. It was a case of déjà vu.
“This one hurts,” Suggs said. “We lose to them the same way we did last year. This one sucks.”
The stakes weren’t nearly as high this time. Last year, the Ravens’ loss on Brown’s “immaculate extension” with nine seconds left knocked them out of playoff contention. This year, Baltimore is still in fine postseason position with three games left.
But that fact didn’t give the Ravens much solace in the immediate postgame sting.
The Ravens defense, which has led Baltimore for much of the season, let one slip through its fingers, to an arch rival, when it had them on the ropes in their own house.
“If you told me the offense would put up 38 points, I would 100 percent say we were going to win,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It’s just tough, man. We didn’t make the plays. … This is going to sting for a while, especially the guys on defense, especially because we care so much and hold ourselves to such a high standard.”
The Steelers came out hot, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives of the game, both by Bell. Pittsburgh didn’t punt in the first half and scored 20 points.
But Baltimore’s defense flipped the script in the third quarter, forcing punts on three consecutive drives while the offense scored 17 unanswered points to take an 11-point lead.
Pittsburgh scored on every drive after that – four straight. The plays that hurt the most were a 57-yard strike to Brown over the middle on third-and-10, a 22-yard gain to Brown on the next drive and a meandering 11-yard touchdown run by Bell on third-and-1.
The Steelers’ final game-winning drive started out well for Baltimore as Suggs broke through for a sack on first down, putting Pittsburgh in a second-and-19 situation with one minute, 35 seconds left on their own 8-yard line.
Pittsburgh whittled it to third-and-5 on a couple passes to tight end Jessie James, who the Ravens struggled to clamp down on throughout the night.
Then, facing a third-and-4, Roethlisberger went to Brown with their bread-and-butter big play. Roethlisberger chucked it down the right sideline in the perfect spot over Brown’s outside shoulder for a 34-yard gain. Matched up one-on-one, cornerback Brandon Carr hardly had a chance at it.
That pretty much did it, as Steelers kicker Chris Boswell banged a 46-yarder through the uprights with 46 seconds left to win it.
“Good throw. One of the best in the game, quarterback and receiver,” Carr said. “I’ve been on an island for 10 years. Sometimes you can’t get them all.”
The Steelers have a long, storied history, which makes it even more jarring that Roethlisberger set a franchise record in completions (44) and attempts (66).
Stats aside, it’s the way that Pittsburgh came on at the end that was so painful.
The Ravens entered the game as the best fourth-quarter team in the league and harped on finishing all offseason after what happened in Heinz Field last year. It steered their offseason decisions. It was beaten into their heads in meetings.
“You can never take the gas pedal off when you play this team,” Weddle said. “We played outstanding in the third quarter, and then they just get on these runs that we can’t dig ourselves out of.”
“The simple fact that we were leading in the fourth quarter is why it sucks,” Suggs echoed. “In the fourth quarter, the defense dropped the ball tonight.”