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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Steelers - Ravens III

There is nothing like a Steelers-Ravens game.

I had the distinct privilege of going to a Steelers-Ravens game at Heinz last year. It was cold, loud and awesome. And that was when both teams were question marks for the playoffs. My uncle and cousin got to be there for this one and I can only imagine how much more intense the vibe was.

Fans are different in Pittsburgh. I don't think it's necessarily a matter of them caring more than fans elsewhere. It's that everyone cares. Everyone is a fan. And I mean everyone. Your best friend. Your best friend's mom. Your best friend's Nana. Everyone. In larger cities, you get a pretty big hunk off the population that just isn't interested in sports. In a place like New York or San Francisco, there are just too many who don't care to create the same type of environment they have in Pittsburgh. It's like a small town of 300,000. When I was in town for the Winter Classic, I showed up at my family's house for dinner. Aunts, cousins, uncles, babies -- every single person had at least one article of Pens gear on. My five year old cousin came down in his new Crosby jersey. My great Aunt was showing off her Penguins earrings. And the dog is named Sid.

"These two teams don't like each other." You hear it every time the Steelers and Ravens play. But what I think is even more true about the Steelers and Ravens is that they don't like playing each other. Or maybe that's just me.

I know the players talk all week about how much they love the games between these two rivals. And as a fan, they're always something to behold. But I'll say this -- there is no team in the league I fear playing more than the Ravens.

Part of it is the fact that the teams are so similar and the games are always close. As you watch every game, you know a single, subtle mistake can make the difference, making it all the more excruciating.

But what it really comes down to is there is no team in the league I hate losing to more than the Ravens. It seems like each meeting, regardless of the circumstances, is personal. So when a loss to the Ravens also means the end of the season, it's explosive.

As anyone who watched this game knows, it lived up to the hype and then some. There were a lot  of penalties early on, which slowed up the tempo. But the ebb and flow and changes in momentum made it a really compelling game to watch. I certainly thought the Ravens had a chance to win this game, but never in my life did I think they'd have a 21-7 lead at halftime. But even more stunning was the Steelers 17 unanswered in the second half.

I'm rewatching the game right now on NFL Network and a few things are standing out:

- Terrell Suggs, as much as I love to hate him, had a hell of a game. Even beyond his forced "fumble" that turned into a TD 17 awkward seconds later, Suggs was in on every big play the Ravens D made. Ray Ray may be the heart of the defense, but I'd take Suggs over him every day of the week. He just looks like a monster. He looks like he wants to literally rip your heart out of your chest and eat it while you watch.

- Ryan Clark outshines Troy. This isn't in any way a knock on Troy, but instead massive props to Clark. Troy is a game-changer, but if the Steelers had two game-changing safties, their pass defense would be on par with their Run D.

Troy missed a few tackles early in the game, but Clark sure picked up the slack. He had some great open field tackles and made brilliant plays on both of the Steelers turnovers in the 3rd Quarter. If both Clark and Troy are on this Sunday, I literally feel like the Steelers could intercept every pass Mark Sanchez throws.

- The Ravens really did choke. I've heard people say that the Ravens lost this game more than the Steelers  won it. I won't go that far, but between Flacco's meltdown in the second half, Boldin's drop of a sure TD pass and TJ's drop to end the game, they really did gag big time.

-Ben wins. You can knock Ben all you want, and I do it regularly. But when the game is on the line, he seems to always come up big. Take a look at the game winning drive in SB43 again -- it's unreal. His throw to Antonio Brown at the end of this game against the Ravens is just another example.

What I think impressed me the most about this game was the Steelers (and Tomlin's) composure, even after going down 21-7. A 14 point lead between these two teams is like 24 point lead in any other game. But the key to this game was the Steelers D realizing that despite having scored 21 points, the Ravens could not move the ball. They got 7 from a PI call. 7 from that fluky fumble recovery for a TD. And 7 were from another fumble at the Steelers 16. The Ravens were up 21-7 in the third quarter and hadn't gained 100 yards of offense.

So the Steelers got it done. And now on to the Jets. When the Steelers won it in 2005/2006, they avoided the Pats after the Broncos knocked them out. I remember then thinking how lucky they got, seeing as they can never beat the Pats in the postseason. They just caught the same break, and here's hoping they take advantage. Any time you can get to the Super Bowl without facing Brady is an opportunity you have to pounce on.

I forecast at least 2 INT by Sanchez. If the Steelers can stop the run and force Sanchez to throw, I like their odds.

Finally, one of the truly strange parts of the weekend: Did anyone else notice how freakishly similar Holmes' TD catch against the Pats was to his catch in Super Bowl 43? He sits down afterwards in the exact same position. Observe:

I'm sure I'll have some more pre-game thoughts before the Jets come to Heinz on Sunday. But the way I see it, if the Steelers D can limit the run and the O-line can give Ben even a few seconds of  protection, they have a good chance of taking a lead. If they can maintain a lead and force Sanchez to throw the ball with some urgency, I really like their odds of picking him off and winning the game.

Here we go!

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