Merry Christmas, Steeler Nation
By Ivan Cole
That pretty much sums up a game that presented a little something for everyone and provided what could be called a Hollywood type ending. If you saw it, no explanation necessary. If you didn’t, you want to be sure to catch both the first and fourth quarters of any replay, that was the good part.
Steelers and Steelers fans were the obvious short term winners of the 31-27 Pittsburgh victory, but there were more winners than just the Steelers.
The league needed this one. During a year when it struggled with ratings and its image, a showcase stinker on Christmas Day, which was inconveniently, for many, available only on a cable outlet—when the sports bars and other venues that many retreat to who don’t have pay networks at home might be closed, could have been a disaster. The gamble, not a bad one really, was that one of sport’s best rivalries would deliver.
The stakes didn’t need to be hyped. The AFC North title was on the line. It was a guaranteed elimination game for one team (Ravens), and just a disaster for the other (Steelers) with a loss. There was talent and star power, legitimate animosity between the two teams, and a promise of violence that would be brutal, but more tasteful than the goofball thug-fests that the Cincinnati Bengals display. It would be a playoff game in all but name only, featuring two well matched, and very familiar foes. The teams didn’t disappoint in that regard, but also provided a bonus.
Steelers/Ravens rarely disappoints the purists and football traditionalists who appreciate hard-nosed, defensive focused football. For three quarters that is pretty much exactly what this game delivered. But then in the fourth quarter it morphed into the offensive circus that the league, its partners and a good portion of the football watching public loves.
The Steelers/Ravens Rivalry
Sometimes, many times really, it is difficult for things to live up to the hype associated with them. As I write this, mere moments after the game, I already know that this will be discussed and replayed among fans and chroniclers of the sport for years into the future. Great individual performances, devastating mistakes and heroic drives delivered by both teams at the end. Antonio Brown’s game winning touchdown catch, which captured both the spirit of the game and the rivalry as he struggled to get the ball into the end zone as Ravens defenders were crushing him to the ground. The rivalry was a winner today.
For a non-Super Bowl, non-playoff circumstance, does it get any better than this? I had the pleasure on Christmas Eve to discuss the state of the team with PaVaSteelers and Bill Steinbach. We, as well as it seems, everyone, were excited about a game of this magnitude, played under these circumstances, with these stakes.
But there was precious little discussion of the impact of a loss and how that might lay waste to our holiday spirit. I don’t know about the rest of you who watched the game, but I was deep into reflection of what that misery would be like throughout the third quarter. Hard to imagine that this game won’t find itself occupying a special place in Steelers lore. Perhaps one of the better indications of the special intensity of this game is that during the last drive, Ben was having difficulty with the crowd noise at home.
As we know, for some fans only a Lombardi will do. And I personally believe that making the conference championship game is the minimum measure of team success given the big picture. But we must acknowledge that a joyful holiday season into the New Year has been established. It will be fun in Pittsburgh and anywhere where two or more Steelers fans are gathered. So let’s spend a little time on winners and losers.
A great win for him because he would have been in line for Goat Number One if Pittsburgh had lost. I felt beforehand that the most likely, perhaps the only way the Steelers would lose this game is if Bad Ben showed up, and he most certainly did. He didn’t fall completely apart, though, and his passing and decision making were crucial during those three fourth quarter drives.
Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown
Bell’s play was the most consistent and spectacular of the Big Three, leaving commentators such as Tony Dungy literally speechless in trying to describe his artistry as an athlete. He scored two of the three last quarter touchdowns, and through most of the game was virtually unstoppable. Most people didn’t see his regionally broadcast performance in Buffalo. This national display may well establish him as a superstar in this league.
On the other hand, the better hyped Brown appeared on his way to being an underachieving non-factor in this effort. But then the character that has made him the best receiver in the league was on full display. Though he did not, could not, erase Bell’s brilliance, he pulled even with it in a few short strokes. Guess who the headliner will be tomorrow.
Though it was the cause of some temporary discomfort, the Ravens only reached Ben once. As I had joked with PaVa, there have been times this season when Ben looked as if he could have ordered a pizza and wait for it to be delivered. Today was one of those times. In a stunning sequence during the first quarter, they stuffed Bell down the Ravens defense’s throat. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were reduced to non-factors for most of the game.
Demarcus Ayers, Xavier Grimble, Johnny Maxey, Eli Rogers
The question going into this game was, could Pittsburgh survive the loss of Stephon Tuitt, LaDarius Green, along with other missing in action players such as Darrius Heyward-Bey? Mind you, Ayers and Maxey had not even been issued a helmet to participate in an NFL game to this point. And their contributions, like those of Grimble and Rogers, were not mere special teams contributions. They were on the field, making plays when the outcome of the game was not certain. That’s taking this whole next man up thing to an entirely different level.
And besides Ben, who ended up on both sides of the equation, who were the losers this week?
His two kicks that went out of bounds earned him this distinction. Fortunately, neither resulted in negative consequences for the Steelers.
His ill-advised comments concerning head coach Mike Tomlin have now also proved to be badly timed. There are those who have still not forgiven him for not attending Chuck Noll’s funeral. The platform he was featured on has a reputation for having it in for Tomlin for no good reason (I mean, why?)
Tomlin’s players and those from other teams line up to sing his praises, the team just clinched a division title and eliminated their most hated rival from playoff contention on Christmas Day, and Tomlin’s next losing season will be his first one. Don’t get Homer J started on this one.
So, Happy New Year’s Steelers Nation. Time to start thinking about where you will be watching that first playoff game in January.