It doesn’t seem too long ago when the likes of Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and the Steelers of yesteryear battled Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens of the past in matchups that left both opponents bloodied and battered. Pittsburgh’s 28-24, nail-biting victory over Baltimore on Sunday was a return to those times, as both teams are among the AFC’s top contenders.
After the game, breakout rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool was just one of many Steelers celebrating when he tweeted: “Losing? Never heard of her.”
Can you blame them for boasting? Pittsburgh (7-0) just survived yet another close bout with a top AFC team on the road, and this time it was over their bitter AFC North rival.
To get a win of this caliber in Baltimore to stay undefeated was something even Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had to acknowledge.
“You better believe it,” said Tomlin. “It’s an honor. A humbling experience. This is what we signed up for, this is what we do at this level. You want to be in these stadiums, you want to have [Jim] Nantz and [Tony] Romo calling your game. We’re honored to be a part of it.”
Having Nantz and Romo, CBS’ top NFL broadcasting team, at your game, means you’re playing one of the biggest games of the week, usually on a national stage, or close to it.
Pittsburgh looks primed to win more of these close affairs behind their top-flight defense, rejuvenated offense, sound coaching and organizational consistency.
The contest featured twists and turns as Baltimore led 17-7 at the half before Pittsburgh rallied to take a 21-17 second-half lead, before falling behind once more. That’s when Ben Roethlisberger delivering a game-winning touchdown pass to Claypool midway through the fourth quarter.
Still, holding that 28-24 lead with over seven minutes remaining, the stout Pittsburgh defense suffered through a few anxious moments before eventually holding versus Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the electric reigning the NFL MVP.
“It’s not always pretty, but we find a way to get it done,” Ben Roethlisberger told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the game. “I’m just glad they’re my defense.”
The moment of praise for his teammates on the opposite side of the football was needed.
The menacing Steeler defense forced four Jackson turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles lost), including a game-opening pick-six and a fumble recovery on a 4th-and-3 stop on a Baltimore QB draw up the gut with roughly two minutes to play.
“The turnovers are the reason why we lost the game,” said Jackson.
He may not be wrong. Baltimore had a double-digit lead at halftime, and despite the turnovers they were able to spread out the Pittsburgh defense to rush for 265 yards on the ground, but the Steeler pass rush (four sacks), and Baltimore’s all-too-familiar, big-game ineffectiveness through the air reared it’s ugly head once again.
Throughout the season, the Ravens had collected some beatdown wins over lesser opponents under the radar, but now have twice have fallen twice on a big stage at home to what we now know are the AFC’s two best teams — Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
The loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football earlier in the year was especially rough. Baltimore’s defense was carved to pieces by Chiefs phenom passer Patrick Mahomes, and Jackson’s attempt to keep up through the air — admittedly with lesser pass-catching targets — was futile, leaving a possible opening for a “Jackson—can’t—keep—up—with—Mahomes” talkshow topic that is certainly ego-damaging for a young and maturing Jackson.
But Sunday’s home loss to their AFC North rival is another moral bludgeoning altogether.
For years, dating back to the early-2000s, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry has been one of the NFL’s marquee matchups.
If the battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the best recent individual player rivalries, then the smash mouth, hard-hitting affairs between Pittsburgh and Baltimore make up perhaps the best 21s-century rivalry in team-versus-team form, with only the Seahawks-49ers battles of the early-2010s even coming close.
These games are must-see television. Two (or sometimes three) times a year, legacies have been built, and career-encompassing judgment has been cast based off the results of a Steelers-Ravens clash.
Now, Baltimore falls virtually three games back of Pittsburgh (if you include the tiebreaker) in the AFC North, with their next meeting with the Steelers residing in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. First, the Ravens will travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts (5-2) next week in an important AFC battle that will kick off the second half of the season.
Furthermore, Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a young franchise cornerstone, suffered an ankle injury that will end his season.
As for Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ next three games (at Cowboys, vs. Bengals, at Jaguars) are all winnable, giving them a shot at a 10-0 start before they see Baltimore again at home for that aforementioned second meeting.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) (Last week: 1). After bludgeoning the Browns, and soundly beating the Titans and Ravens on the road, it’s clear the Steelers are the biggest threat to defending champion Kansas City in the AFC. Them, along with the Buccaneers, are the most complete teams in football right now, even if league-best quarterback play on the Chiefs and Seahawks make the latter two equally dangerous teams come January.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (7-1) (Last week: 2). I know they played the Jets — whose 2020 version of their team may be the worst pro football squad we’ve ever seen — but it’s pretty wild that a Patrick Mahomes’ five-touchdown game is now bottom-of-the-barrel, ho-hum news for an NFL Sunday.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 4). They should beat the Giants in New York tonight, setting up a mega-tilt versus the NFC South rival Saints in Tampa next Sunday night. If they win that, they’ll be in the driver’s seat for the division crown, with New Orleans two rows back in the van.
4. Seattle Seahawks (6-1) (Last week: 6). Defending NFC champion San Francisco was starting to feel good about themselves before they ran into Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and the seemingly unstoppable Seahawks offense, which is one of the best stories of the season. No matter how bad their defense is, Seattle is still a Super Bowl contender.
5. Baltimore Ravens (5-2) (Last week: 3). They’ll probably follow this up with a few solid wins that are seen by most on the bottom-of-the-TV ticker or in a postgame highlights show, but that’s their problem. The Ravens will be judged on games like Sunday’s, or their match with Kansas City earlier in the year. They lost both. They’re a great team that needs wide receiver help, more consistency in the passing game, and better play in big games. There’s still Super Bowl hope with a team this talented, but it seems Lamar Jackson is destined to suffer another rough playoff loss before the Ravens further build around him.
6. New Orleans Saints (5-2) (Last week: 9). They still don’t look great on offense, and Michael Thomas’ extended absence is likely at play there. They have a chance to raise some eyebrows next week in Tampa, where they’ll attempt to sweep the mighty Bucs, and in turn, pull ahead in the NFC South.
7. Green Bay Packers (5-2) (Last week: 6). Here comes the list of three teams that are clearly good but not great, and it showed on Sunday. Of course, the Vikings were going to get up for a game with their NFC North rival, especially when they have nothing to lose. But if you get three touchdowns from No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams, and still don’t win, that’s a sign you need more on offense. No wonder they’ve been linked to Will Fuller’s before tomorrow’s trade deadline. They need to get better in run defense, too. They were run over twice by the 49ers last year, and similarly by Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota running game on Tuesday. That’s a bad Achilles heel to have come January. It may be their undoing again.
8. Tennessee Titans (5-2) (Last week: 7). The Titans’ 34-20 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati was perhaps the worst loss of the day, for any team. You’d think they’d get up more for a lowly opponent after their first loss of the year at home the week before. Now, the Colts have pulled even with them in the AFC South.
9. Buffalo Bills (6-2) (Last week: 8). Yes, they beat the Patriots, effectively ending their AFC East title chances and elevating theirs in the process, but the Bills haven’t quite looked good the past few weeks. They are a super-talented team, but they have trouble stopping the run in what looks like a defensive regression season, and Josh Allen still throws a few errant passes. They are soundly the fifth or sixth best team in the AFC, but should do enough to win the division, although the Dolphins are creeping up.
10. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: 11). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are one of the most fun teams to watch in 2020.
11. Indianapolis Colts (5-2) (Last week: 14). Here come the Colts. Believe it or not, that was a pretty great win in Detroit on Sunday. The Lions are indeed, the Lions, but they are a tough team that was feeling good about themselves. We’ll know a lot more about Indy after next week’s home match versus Baltimore.
12. Miami Dolphins (4-3) (Last week: 16). Tua Tagovailoa wins his first start, and the Dolphins have now won three straight and are allowing a league-best 18.6 points per game on defense. Head coach Brian Flores deserves a ton of credit for what he’s doing in Miami.
13. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). Here comes the trio of “just OK” teams in the NFC, whether for quarterback play, injuries, or overall roster issues. The Rams are primed to be a NFC wild card team at best, and nothing else.
14. Chicago Bears (5-3) (Last week: 12). Similar to the Rams, the Bears have erratic QB play, and just don’t feel like a true contender in the NFC. And that’s because they’re not.
15. San Francisco 49ers (4-4) (Last week: 10). Things were looking up for the 49ers before a rough loss in Seattle that featured more injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle. This just isn’t their year, despite Kyle Shanahan’s valiant attempt to coach around it.
16. Las Vegas Raiders (4-3) (Last week: NR). That was a big win in Cleveland for AFC Wild Card purposes come January. The Raiders are a wily bunch.
Next up: Cleveland, Philadelphia, Carolina, Detroit, Denver