The Ravens edged the Pittsburgh Steelers with lasting intimidation and last-minute improvisation yesterday.
In a victory stirring up memories from last year's Super Bowl run, the Ravens capitalized on special teams and timely offensive production to pull out a 13-10 victory over the division-leading Steelers at Heinz Field.A tipped field-goal attempt by Chris McAlister sent Steelers kicker Kris Brown into a game-ending tailspin, and a pivotal route change by Shannon Sharpe elevated the Ravens (5-3) back into the AFC Central title hunt. The Ravens' third straight win in the Steel City cut their deficit to a half-game behind Pittsburgh (5-2) and leapfrogged them into second place in the AFC Central.
Sharpe's 26-yard reception in the fourth quarter -- which was altered from a curl to a flag pattern -- set up Matt Stover's 39-yard, go-ahead field goal. That left the game hanging on the Ravens' mind game with Brown.
With a limp reminding him of his recent past and a stiff crosswind part of his immediate present, Brown sliced the potential game-tying 35-yarder wide right, sealing the win for the Ravens with eight seconds left to play. It was the fourth miss of the game for Brown, who had failed on only 11 of 72 field-goal attempts before yesterday.
"I had no faith that he was going to make that one," McAlister said. "You could see how much it [the tipped attempt] affected him. He wasn't going to make another one after that."
The victory propelled the Ravens into a promising future, with a second half of the season that features five of their last eight regular-season games at home.
The fashion in which they won conjured up the roots of last year's championship surge.
It was reminiscent, coach Brian Billick said, of the Ravens' 24-23 win at Tennessee last November when they needed a late, wide-right miss by kicker Al Del Greco after a come-from-behind score to close the gap on a division leader's home turf. That win is regarded as the turning point in a season in which the Ravens won their final 11 games in capturing their first Super Bowl title.
"This feels very familiar," Billick said. "There's a certain familiarity there that you hope that bodes well. This is a big win."
The Ravens won yesterday despite one third-down conversion, despite Steelers running back Jerome Bettis cranking out 91 yards rushing, despite being outgained, 348-183, in total yards.
This time, the turnover-prone Ravens relished triumphing because of someone else's mistakes. The Ravens are 14-2 in November and December since 1999.
"We rose up to the occasion," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "In this league, the team that makes the plays throughout the game is usually going to win."
Said Steelers safety Lee Flowers: "We played better than them. We outplayed them. But that's why they're the Super Bowl champs. They found a way to win."
After Brown's only successful field goal put the Steelers ahead 3-0 in the first quarter, the Ravens answered with a 53-yard kickoff return by Jermaine Lewis.
Four plays later, quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was filling in for injured starter Elvis Grbac for the second straight game, hit a wide-open Sharpe to take a 7-3 lead. It was a rare mistake by the Steelers' top-ranked defense, as Sharpe was not picked up after splitting inside linebackers Kendrell Bell and Earl Holmes.
"Shannon always winks when he's coming out of the huddle," said Cunningham, who was 14-for-22 passing for 158 yards. "So, I was looking for him when he was going down the middle."
That margin was safe until the final minute of the first half when the Steelers took advantage of Ravens cornerback Duane Starks looking at the quarterback. Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress just ran past the quicker Starks and caught a 21-yard pass in the right corner of the end zone.
Starks, who has allowed four touchdowns in his past four games, declined to speak with the media after the game.
"As a team, as individuals, everybody has to have a little bit better focus in key situations and anticipating what it is they are going to do," Billick said. "Fortunately, it didn't cost us the game."
The Steelers seemingly took control to open the second half, grinding out a 14-play drive to the Ravens' 15. But Brown's 33-yarder was altered by McAlister, who had little resistance coming off the right corner. Pittsburgh, which had watched Woodson nearly block an earlier field goal from that right side, had focused on blocking him and left McAlister basically free. From that point, McAlister knew he was in Brown's head.
"It was like Del Greco last year out there in Tennessee," McAlister said. "You kind of know when a kicker is feeling a little trouble."
The Ravens tied the game at 10 on Stover's 25-yard field goal to open the fourth quarter. After Brown's second -- but not final -- miss from 48 yards, the Ravens took their cue from Sharpe.
On the next play following that failed field goal, Sharpe talked with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to change his route from a curl over the middle to a flag pattern to the right. The result was a 26-yard catch by Sharpe for the Ravens' only gain over 17 yards.
That led to Stover's 39-yard field goal at the less windy closed end of the stadium, moving the Ravens ahead 13-10 with 1:49 left.
"I was like, `What if they don't give us the coverage that we want? I'm wasted,' " Sharpe said. "And Matt at the last second said, `OK, we're going to put you on a seven route.' It just so happened they went to the perfect coverage."
Stewart, who finished with 236 yards passing, continued his sharp day by moving the Steelers 45 yards in 1:35. But with eight seconds left, Brown hit wide right into the breezy open-end of Heinz a third straight time.
"It just was a bad stroke," Brown said. "I lost the game for us. There are no excuses today."
Yesterday's win may not have been artful, but it had a meaning. For the Ravens, it was a sign of another season-ending run.
"When you get into ballgames that you really need to win, those are the ones that you have to pull out," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "One thing about the NFL, if you win in November, nine times out of 10 you're in the playoffs."