In "The Fighter" with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, Wahlberg finally gets a big fight. After years of toil, of watching other, younger guys get opportunities, of having his face beat in from time to time, he gets a break. And then he goes out and is getting his ass soundly kicked. He's losing the fight just as much as he's being beaten. Suddenly, when he's just one or two good punches away from being knocked into an assisted living facility, he changes tacts. He starts taking the fight to his opponent, rather than just reacting to his opponent. He delivers some body blows, stuns the other, 'better' fighter. And he wins. It's not pretty, but its a win.
Boxing analogies, redolent with antiquity, blood, guts, and nothing more than sheer will driving competitors to get up and take more punishment, are like crack to television analysts and writers alike, and in the week leading up to Steelers-Ravens III, boxing language was tossed about like Pepcid after an ill-advised late-night trip to Primanti's. Bluster. Hyperbole. Hype and amplification that I myself was guilty of, knowing full-well that it might end up being both balder and dash. But I gave into it, letting the literary nature of the sweet science wash over me.
And then something crazy happened. The football game really did live up to the heavy weight bout paradigm, ridiculous as that seems.
The Steelers, with lots of veterans on the field, let a live ball lay on the ground while they stood around as though they were waiting in the considerable Heinz Field bathroom lines until Baltimore's Cory Redding picked the ball up and just sauntered into the endzone. I've seen guys move with more urgency on their way to visit the in-laws. How can veterans like Hines Ward and Heath Miller not even have the sense to pick up the ball? You know, just in case? How can a smart rookie like Maurkice Pouncey not just fall on the ball? It was the equivalent standing there, arms down, chin hanging out, just daring your opponent to knock you into the third row.
Terrell Suggs did his best to knock the Steelers senseless. It felt like a seismic, tectonic shift in the game -- if not a knockout blow, then the haymaker that sets up the inevitable knockout.
And I wondered, just how do you come back from that kind of thing?
The Steelers came back from that epic brainfart by going three and out, and then on their next possession, Rashard Mendenhall fumbled the ball over to the Ravens just 12 yards away from the endzone. Joe Flacco hit Todd Heap for an easy TD and the beatdown was on. The Steelers offense played careless football and played themselves into a deep hole. They let the Ravens beat them in the face and pound their midsections. The 21-7 deficit felt like a knockout.
Somebody throw in the towel before it gets too ugly.
It was at this point, I have to admit, that I thought, "Oh well, with the Steelers playing like this, at least I won't be tense."
But on the 8 count, the Steelers dragged themselves off the mat. And started to deliver head-body combinations of their own.
Ryan Clark knocked the ball out of Ray Rice's arm and the Steelers turned that into 7 points quickly. A word, and perhaps you've heard this before, or maybe you even read it here, but Rice never fumbles. Like never. That he did at that particular moment, was the turning point in the game, the one landed punch that gave the Steelers a chance to collect themselves, re-focus, re-load.
I have a simple-minded theory about turnovers. When an offense is unable to score after their defense sets them up with a turnover, it dampens the fire of the defense, breaks it's resolve. It's hard to get amped up when you give somebody a gift and they literally pee on it. But a touchdown following a turnover? That cranks the defense up to 11. Which, as you know, is one louder.
Pig Ben's pass to a wide open Miller in the back of the endzone fired up the Steelers defense and lit a fire under the Heinz Field crowd. That place was as loud as I've heard it in a long time, probably since the 2002 Tommy Maddox playoff comeback against the Browns.
Emboldened by the 7 point swing, the Steelers defense went out and forced a definitive three and out. Then, next time out, Clark (again) read Flacco beautifully and pulled in the overthrow intended for Heap. A bullet from Pig Ben to Hines Ward later and the game was tied.
What the??? How the hell did that happen?
Ray Lewis looked dejected. Don't believe me? Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun:But really, how did it happen?
It happened because the Steelers defense, statistically dominant all year, showed just why they owned all the numbers -- never caving in, never giving up, even after Rice ran through Troy Polamalu on the way to the endzone, even after all the offensive ineptitude. They gave up just 126 total yard. 126 total. Heck, Tom Brady throws for 126 yards in a single quarter and the entire Ravens offense was able to generate that over four quarters.
It happened because the Steelers forced three turnovers of their own, had five sacks and seven more tackles for losses. They did it with the other safety making all the big plays, with Casey Hampton looking like the 2005 version of Casey Hampton and Ziggy Hood looking very much like he was worth taking in the first round. It happened because Ike Taylor shut down one side and William Gay held down the fort on the other.
It happened because the Steelers offensive line, much maligned (by me) through the year, greatly diminished through the course of the season, and with the Ravens turning them into an on-field triage unit, somehow found a way to battle through. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't dominant, but it was admirable. You have to hand it to a bunch of guys who are back ups to back ups, going out there and giving their all against a defensive front and linebacking corps as good as Baltimore's.
Even so, the teams were even on points late in the game. Pittsburgh already had 17 points off of turnovers. Baltimore had 14 points off of turnovers, plus 3 more off of special teams, which woes the Steelers just cannot seem to banish once and for all. Each offense had driven the length of the field for one touchdown. I'd say, using the boxing judge's scorecard analogy, that's even on points, both literally and figuratively.
So this game, as games of this magnitude often do, came down to who was going to make just one or two big plays late in the game.
Facing a 3rd and 19, Pig Ben somehow found Antonio Brown deep behind the Ravens defense and the rookie clutched the ball to his helmet a'la David Tyree, tripping his way to the 4 yard line. Pig Ben is 9-2 in the post-season, an .818 winning percentage. Of quarterbacks who have started at least 10 post-season games, only Bart Starr (9-1 in the post-season) has a better winning percentage. And the reason is, I believe, because, inelegant though his game may be, he has an ability to make one big play when it matters. It maybe ugly, and it may only be one or two plays, but he has a knack for getting it done. It's inexplicable, but it's a fact.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens had every opportunity to make that one big play, but Flacco and his receivers couldn't do it. Anquan Boldin dropped a sure touchdown that would have put the Ravens up by 4 points. On a pass, I would point out, that was nearly identical to the pass Ward hauled in to tie the game.
With plenty of time left to score a touchdown and send the game to OT, Ziggy collapsed the Ravens pocket and dropped Flacco bringing up a 4th and 18. Then T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a pass that Flacco put right between the 8 and the 4 on Whoseyourmama's jersey. Yes. That Whoseyourmama, the one who once wiped his feet on a Terrible Towel, the one who earlier complained that the Ravens were not throwing to him enough. With a drop like that, is it any wonder that, when he has his druthers, Flacco looks for Derrick Mason?
The Ravens had their chances. Actually, the Steelers gave them every chance to win, opening up their midsections and daring the Ravens to punch them there.
The Baltimore offense couldn't come up with one big catch when they needed it and the Baltimore defense let Antonio Brown get behind them. Two plays. Two plays where the Steelers executed and the Ravens didn't.
Brown gets deep and hangs on.
Whoseyourmama drops a sure first down.
The Steelers made a lot of mistakes they need to correct, but they have a ton to be proud of, too. All that means is they get a chance to fight another day. That is way more than I anticipated back in September.