The Ravens and Steelers meet Saturday in the AFC divisional-playoff round, and that is just.
A tiebreaker was all that separated these teams in the regular season. Yes, a tiebreaker. The Steelers won 12 games, and the Ravens did, too The teams split a pair of regular-season matchups, with each team winning on the other's home turf. But in the end, Pittsburgh had the better divisional record. The difference was the Ravens' loss at Cincinnati ... in September.
Procedure is no way to settle anything between these two teams — the last four games between them have each been settled by a field goal! — but rules are rules, and so it was the Ravens who had to go to Kansas City to begin the postseason Sunday. The Chiefs stunned Baltimore early with the explosive running of Jamaal Charles, but they got away from that blueprint, and the Ravens made them pay dearly. The Ravens' defense, as it usually does, buckled down, never more so than when the Chiefs, on a pivotal 4th-and-1 play early in the third quarter trailing 10-7, ran a little pitch play to the short side of the field.
It never had a chance. NT Kelly Gregg, a Ravens stalwart, led the charge, and very quickly, Charles was swarmed for a loss. The Chiefs' last, best scoring chance was gone. The Ravens would seize control, rolling to a 30-7 rout, their third such defeat of a divisional champion in the wild-card round in the last three seasons. The Ravens had earned their way to Pittsburgh.
"They are just a salty group," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was saying of the Ravens' defense Monday, "and I don't care where you play them, when you play them, under what circumstances you play them, you know what you are going to get from them from that standpoint.
"They are going to run to the ball, they are going to hit people, they are going to turn ballcarriers around. They are going to give ground very grudgingly."
The same can be said, for certain, about the Steelers' defense, which shuts down the run and was significantly better against the pass after longtime foil Tom Brady riddled Pittsburgh with on-target throws in a November rout. That defense authored the game's decisive play in the Week 13 meeting at Baltimore, with SS Troy Polamalu charging off left end to hit QB Joe Flacco as he was preparing to throw, forcing a fumble that was recovered by LOLB LaMarr Woodley, an elite difference maker in his own right. Woodley rumbled deep into Baltimore territory, and the Steelers capitalized, with QB Ben Roethlisberger hitting RB Isaac Redman for the eventual game-winning TD pass.
All told, Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to six straight victories over Baltimore since 2007, but the Ravens haven't made it easy on him. He came away from the last meeting with a broken nose and was sacked three times. However, he's vexed his rivals before. Who can forget his throw to Santonio Holmes to beat the Ravens in Baltimore in 2008?
Flacco, who was excellent in the Ravens' win at Kansas City, chipping away at the middle of the Chiefs' defense with calm and precision, has also shown poise and playmaking ability against Pittsburgh, never more so than when he led the Ravens to the game-winning touchdown in the first meeting between the teams in October. Leading the Ravens to victory at Heinz Field Saturday would take his career to another level altogether.
It would also move the Ravens closer to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2000. Every contender operates with a sense of urgency, but for some, the feeling is more acute than others. The Ravens have been vying to get back to the NFL's ultimate stage for a decade now. Lewis, the heart and soul of that team, remains a standout defender and legendary on-field leader at 35, but how many more chances will he have to be a champion? FS Ed Reed, a future Hall of Famer, is 32. His career began in 2002, one of the few lean seasons for Baltimore. He has never been to a Super Bowl.
Making it to the divisional round every year is a blessing, not a certainty, even though the Ravens have made it seem that way recently. The Steelers, you may recall, missed the playoffs altogether last season, finishing one game behind the Bengals.
In winning the AFC North in 2009, the Bengals swept the Steelers and Ravens, but Cincinnati fell back this year, and year after year usually, it is Baltimore and Pittsburgh that define this division. The Ravens and Steelers are the standard for the Bengals and Browns. They are a big reason Cleveland keeps changing coaches and organizational game plans.
The real AFC North title comes Saturday. The Steelers and Ravens played to a 27-27 draw in the regular season. It is the right matchup at the right time. The holiday decorations are in boxes in the living room, ready to be taken downstairs, and there's more stray pine needles on the floor than you would like to admit, but be honest with yourself: You aren't scheduling company until later on this special Saturday. Chores can be done halfheartedly, and 3½ hours late, but there is nothing half-anything about this game.