Collier: Fumbles are decisive
Share with others:
For his first rhetorical flourish of the postseason, Mike Tomlin illuminated the major theme of its premiere episode without even knowing it last Monday.
The Baltimore Ravens have a knack, he emphasized at the outset of his weekly news conference, for "creating fumble opportunities."
Was that a capsule scouting report, or some kind of para-mentalist stunt?
Here we are four fumbles later, one of them so bizarre that 21 of the 22 players on the Heinz Field lawn failed to recognize it as a fumble or an opportunity, but the narrative created by those four blunders fueled an electrifying 31-24 Steelers victory in ways comic, dramatic and, ultimately, heroic.
"I didn't know that we would get turnovers in the manner in which we did," Tomlin said after a 60-minute thrill ride of a playoff game.
The most ridiculous single spasm of Fumblepalooza was triggered by Baltimore's Terrell Suggs.
Suggs swooped around Bruce Arians' empty set formation from the Steelers 10 in the first quarter and banged into Ben Roethlisberger from behind at the 5, just before No. 7's arm began its throwing motion. The ball squirted to the turf about 8 yards upfield and was roundly ignored by everyone in the stadium except defensive end Cory Redding, who stood over it with a quizzical look.
Is this a fumble?
Perhaps an opportunity?
Then he deciding to, um -- what the hell, I'll pick it up.
Then he ran with it, toward the end zone while everyone else stood there like kids with empty pockets watching the Good Humor truck roll past.
Thirteen yards later, Redding had a touchdown and Baltimore had a 14-7 lead.
Clearly the Steelers needed to fumble more convincingly, so they did. Rashard Mendenhall, falling to the turf with the ball in his right arm, had it removed inadvertently by the elbow of Chris Kemoeatu, which set Baltimore up at the Steelers 16. Six plays later, Joe Flacco made an easy 4-yard flip to Todd Heap that made it 21-7.
At that stage, Baltimore's 14-point lead and proclivity for creating fumble opportunities did not exactly spell doom for the Steelers' postseason future, but D-O-O was there in capital letters.
"We knew they couldn't score any more," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "They got two turnovers in the first half, and our goal was to get those two back in the third quarter, then some big dude came up with a fumble for the third one."
Keisel was that dude, but the people taking Baltimore's mojo away weren't even on the field. Baltimore's John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron instantly assembled a clinic on what not to do with a 14-point lead.
Repeatedly throwing on first and second down deep in its own territory, Baltimore's offensive staff invited Mike Tomlin's team back to the party. Ray Rice took a third-down pass over the middle and failed to protect the ball from safety Ryan Clark. A minute later Roethlisberger found Heath Miller roaming free behind the Ravens secondary and it was 21-14.
Clark's performance blossomed into brilliance two possessions later, when he intercepted Flacco's sideline pass for Heap at the Ravens 42 and returned it to the 25. Four plays later, Roethlisberger drilled Hines Ward on a quick slant for 8 yards and the tying touchdown.
Not that they were satisfied with the disaster as it stood; before the third-quarter expired, Flacco created another fumble opportunity, this one ending up in the mitts of the big dude at the Ravens 23.
But even after five turnovers including four fumbles, two they caused and two they coughed away, the Ravens continued to demonstrate a stunning inability to grasp the football.
On third-and-goal from the Steelers 6 with four minutes left, Flacco's pass hit Anquan Boldin between the 8 and the 1 on his jersey in the end zone.
Instead of being up 28-24, Billy Cundiff booted the Ravens into a 24-24 tie that lasted little more than two minutes. Antonio Brown's dazzling 58-yard reception to set up the winning touchdown still found the Ravens with a shot at tying.
Standing near the 30, where he was about to convert Flacco's fourth-down pass into a first down in the final minute, T.J. Houshmandzadeh turned to face a face-high spiral.
Fumble opportunities, drop opportunities, all part of Baltimore's incessant creationism, somehow led to a very familiar Steelers opportunity.
They call it the AFC championship opportunity, the fifth one around here in 11 years.
First Published January 16, 2011 12:00 am