Gene Collier: Roller-coaster emotion ride leads to an instant classic
December 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers Mike Mitchell breaks up a pass in the end zone against the Ravens' Breshad Perriman in the first quarter Sunday at Heinz Field.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers did not want to play on Christmas, and for stretches of an over-warm holiday, they made that pretty obvious. The fact was that the Rooneys volunteered to fill television’s prime-time portion of Thanksgiving and hoped without saying so the reward would be a slot on the Christmas Eve schedule with most of the rest of the NFL.
Uh, no, said the NFL. Quoting directly from the first letter of Santa to Rudolph, “We need you on Christmas.”
But looking back, who at Heinz Field Sunday would have wanted anything but what unfolded across three indelible hours of yuletide jollification? To win their 22nd division title right in front of the archrival murder of crows, all Mike Tomlin’s team needed was to survive a come-from-ahead, come-from-behind, come-from-ahead-again, come-from-behind again maelstrom on one last play with 0:09 seconds left.
That play found Antonio Brown caressing Ben Roethlisberger’s 24th completion with Baltimore’s Eric Weddle hanging on him like a cement overcoat at the goal line, and jabbing it across the plane like a dagger that sent the Ravens inalterably toward their offseason.
“That’s an instant classic game, I believe,” said Willie Gay in the minutes after Steelers 31, Ravens 27.
“This will go down in history. I’ve been in a lot of good games, but it’s definitely going to be right up there with them. You’ve got two teams fighting to get in the playoffs, two teams the caliber of us and the Ravens.
“Things are gonna happen.”
One thing that happened was that after the Ravens converted the first of two Roethlisberger interceptions into a go-ahead touchdown barely 90 seconds after halftime, Tomlin walked up to Gay on the sideline and laid down some immutable law, with instructions to share it with the defensive masses.
“He always preaches in adverse situations, don’t blink,” Gay said. “He just said to remind some people.”
So Gay walked to the bench, convened just about everyone on defense, delivered a bombastic Christmas homily, and those around him stood as one and joined hands. Then pretty promptly allowed another 13 points.
Not even the most inspirational football liturgy was going to change the course of this thrill ride; it was out of control from the start, with the Steelers jumping ahead on a 20-yard pass to Xavier Grimble.
Before the offense could stick it in the end zone again, Baltimore would lead, 20-10, the fattest lead of the game and one it would take all of seven minutes to kick away.
“You cannot let one moment or a couple moments in the game take away from everything else you’re capable of,” said Ramon Foster, who again joined a thumpingly efficient offensive line in springing Le’Veon Bell for 100-plus and keeping Roethlisberger 100 percent sack-free. “We could not let a couple bad moments take us down. We have a lot of guys now who are very mature and some guys who’ve grown up.
“The defense did a good job of getting us out of situations and keeping them from scoring 7 points. That’s what happens when you have a team effort. That’s what we’re in the business of right now; this time of year, everybody has to do their part.”
When Baltimore sent Harvard alum Kyle Juszczyk out to steamroll Mike Mitchell and lunge into the end zone with 1:18 remaining, the Ravens led, 27-24, and it appeared any part the Steelers had to play in the remainder of the NFL season would be marginal at best.
But there were 78 seconds left, and some marginal actors still had huge parts to play.
Demarcus Ayers, a rookie wideout who had walked onto an NFL field for the first time only hours earlier and drawn a key interference penalty on the Steelers’ first touchdown drive, caught a 9-yard pass on the winning drive.
Eli Rogers contributed 20 yards with a leaping grab.
Jesse James caught three of Roethlisberger’s final eight completions for 28 more.
“There is nothing specific to it,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh on the matter of his defense allowing one touchdown in the game’s first 48:18 then three over the next 11:32.
“They made great throws. They made catches. Ben got out of the pocket and made a couple plays. I think it was just playmaking. You have to come up with plays against him. We came up with interceptions early [leading directly to 10 points]. That’s what you need to do. We were unable to do that in the fourth quarter.
“That was the difference in the game. They made more plays than we did. They made one more play than we did.”
And that play came only when it had to, when there were 13 seconds left and all of the Steelers’ timeouts had been spent and it was second-and-goal at the Ravens 4.
That’s when Roethlisberger decided he would see if business was still boomin’
And it was. And now it’ll go boomin’ on into January.
Merry Christmas yinz maniacs.
Gene Collier: email@example.com and Twitter @genecollier.
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