PITTSBURGH — The Ravens surely didn’t need validation before their 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night.
Beating their fiercest rival in the playoffs for the first time doesn’t trump two Super Bowl titles and a wild-card win wouldn’t appear to register as more than a footnote for a franchise that’s made the postseason 10 times in the last 15 years, but the fans of Baltimore know the truth. After watching Pittsburgh get the best of the Charm City in postseason battles for the better part of four decades, the Ravens exacted a little revenge and it felt good.
It may not have erased the pain of the Ravens’ three prior postseason defeats at Heinz Field, the disappointment of back-to-back playoff losses suffered by the Colts to the Steelers in 1975 and 1976, or the agony of the Orioles’ two Game 7 World Series losses to the Pirates in 1971 and 1979, but Baltimore is entitled to bask in the satisfaction of ending the Steelers’ season.
“This is a very special victory for us, not just because it’s a playoff win,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But because of who it comes against, which is our most respected rival.”
You know how important it was to the Ravens for Harbaugh, a man who loathes making comparisons because it diminishes someone or something in the process, to acknowledge this one meant a little bit more that the typical playoff victory. And it allowed the likes of Elvis Grbac, Daren Stone, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to rest easy knowing the Ravens finally came through against Pittsburgh when it really mattered.
A look at the final statistics won’t overwhelm you as the Ravens failed to reach 300 yards of total offense and averaged just 2.0 yards per carry. Harbaugh labeled Saturday his team’s best game of the season, but the Ravens have scored more and allowed fewer points in other games this season.
More than anything, the performance was the perfect display of the toughness some doubted the Ravens had after an underwhelming month of December. Baltimore was aggressive on both sides of the ball and proved themselves as the more physical team despite the final numbers not blowing you away. A banged-up offensive line allowed only one sack while the pass rush continued to be ferocious in sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times, making life in the shaky secondary much easier as the Steelers were made one-dimensional by the absence of Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell.
But no one showed that toughness more than quarterback Joe Flacco, who picked up where he left off in his historic 2012 postseason by throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns while posting a 114.0 passer rating. He’s now undefeated in his last five playoffs games and has tossed 13 touchdowns without throwing an interception in that span. In his last seven postseason contests, the 29-year-old has 17 touchdown passes and only one pick.
What is it about the postseason that makes Flacco so great?
“I really don’t know. I say that a lot, but it’s a tough question to answer,” Flacco said. “I come out here and do the same thing all the time. The biggest thing is to come out here and play a consistent football game.”
Of course, Flacco would be the first to tell you he wasn’t alone in disposing of the Steelers as the Ravens received spectacular plays such as Steve Smith’s 40-yard reception midway through the third quarter and Terrell Suggs’ legs-aided interception in the fourth that set up a quick score. But there were also a number of under-the-radar contributions that proved critical such as safety Darian Stewart driving Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown out of bounds to prevent a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter and left guard Kelechi Osemele stymieing rush specialist James Harrison from a potential sack-strip of Flacco on the 11-yard touchdown strike to Torrey Smith that put the Ravens up 20-9 late in the third quarter.
The Ravens weathered adversity after Justin Forsett’s fumble and a quick Steelers touchdown — the kind of sequence that doomed them in previous playoff experiences against Pittsburgh — by responding with 10 points on their next two possessions to put the game away.
Baltimore was simply better than Pittsburgh on Saturday, and it’s been a long time coming for fans who’ve endured plenty of disappointment at the hands of the Steel City over the years. Flacco said earlier in the week that the Ravens weren’t brooding over previous playoff failures in Pittsburgh in the same way that they couldn’t dwell on the struggles of the final month of the regular season.
January brings a new season, and the Ravens certainly responded in the best way possible.
“You have to play these games to win,” Flacco said. “You can’t play not to lose. You have to go out there and you have to let everything go. You can’t worry about the outcome.”
And in not worrying, the Ravens were able to finally exorcise those old Pittsburgh demons.