The Ravens are very much back in playoff position, and they can thank Joe Flacco's arm, Justin Tucker's foot and the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Emmanuel Sanders.
Who needs anything like the wildcat offense when your quarterback is keeping the ball out of harm's way and your kicker can't seem to miss? It helps to have a little luck, too.
A game that the Ravens appeared to have in control came down to one two-point conversion attempt and Sanders dropped Ben Roethlisberger's pass in the corner of the end zone. When the Steelers' ensuing onside kick was unsuccessful, the Ravens had a 22-20 victory and a Thanksgiving night crowd of 71,005 was finally able to exhale.
Flacco directed an offense that scored points on six of their seven full possessions and kicker Justin Tucker was 5-for-5 on field goals and has now made 27 in a row.
“It's been a great Thanksgiving night for the Ravens, I can tell you that,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team is now 6-6, back at the .500 mark for the first time since Week 6. “Hard fought as always. It's never over when you play the Steelers.”
The Ravens had a 10-0 lead at halftime, a 19-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and then a 22-14 lead with 5:37 to go. However, Roethlisberger brought the Steelers down the field, and twice Pittsburgh appeared to have scored a touchdown before the plays were reversed by a review.
On fourth-and-goal with just over a minute to go, Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery on the 13th play of the drive for a 1-yard touchdown pass. Sanders got behind Ravens cornerback Chykie Brown on the two-point conversion attempt, but he couldn't hold on.
The win marked the fifth consecutive game in the series decided by three points or fewer. Ten of the past 14 games in the rivalry have also been decided by at most a field goal.
“This is another classic Ravens-Steelers game,” Harbaugh said. “These games just keep happening.”
With the victory, the Ravens moved into sole possession of the sixth and final playoff spot, moving ahead of several teams including the Steelers (5-7). They won't play again for another 10 days before the Minnesota Vikings come to M&T Bank Stadium next Sunday.
Flacco, who took every snap with backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor remaining on the sideline throughout, was 24-of-35 for 251 yards and a touchdown, a 7-yard connection with Torrey Smith on the Ravens' first drive of the game. Afterward, Flacco bemoaned the Ravens' inability to put the Steelers away as the home team scored just one touchdown in five trips into the red zone.
“I thought we played really well tonight,” Flacco said. “We did so many things well. We were right there. That's why I was probably a little more animated and so frustrated. We were right there. We could taste it. We just couldn't convert.”
The good thing was Tucker didn't miss. He converted field goals of 43, 34, 38, 45 and 48 yards. Not only has he made 27 in a row – the longest streak in the NFL this season and the second longest in Ravens' history – Tucker has nine field goals over the past two weeks.
“I just feel like I'm doing my job,” Tucker said. “I go into every single game knowing it's going to be on me and expecting the game to come down to one or two or three points or one possession. If I didn't prepare like that, then what am I doing out there on the practice field?”
The game was not without some controversy as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin may have foiled a Jacoby Jones' kickoff return for a touchdown. After Roethlisberger's 8-yard touchdown pass to Sanders cut the Ravens' lead to 13-7 with 6:26 left in the third quarter, Jones took the ensuing kickoff and appeared to have an open lane down the left sideline toward the end zone.
However, Tomlin, who curiously had his back turned and was standing partially on the field, appeared to at least force Jones to slightly alter his course. Jones was instead tackled from behind by Cortez Allen following the 73-yard return.
“I was wondering did they credit him with a tackle on that?,” Harbaugh playfully asked after the game. “Hey, that stuff happens. I really don't have anything to say about it other than, stuff like that can happen.”
The Ravens were forced to settle for a 38-yard field goal and a 16-7 lead. Tucker then hit from 45 yards to make it 19-7 early in the fourth quarter.
However, the Steelers answered with a long drive that ended on rookie Le'Veon Bell's 1-yard touchdown run. It was just the second rushing touchdown the Ravens allowed all season and the first since Week 4.
Tucker's 48-yard field goal with 5:43 to go gave the Ravens a 22-14 lead and put the game back in the hands of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens' defense, which has bemoaned its inability to get off the field late in games, again couldn't get a final stop.
The talk in the days leading up to the game was about how much the Ravens would use the two-quarterback set after Taylor was on the field for 12 snaps in Sunday’s victory over the New York Jets.
Flacco made his feelings on the matter well known on Tuesday, calling it a high school offense and saying it makes the Ravens not look like an NFL team. Harbaugh declined to engage in a war-of-words with his Super-Bowl winning quarterback, though he said a day later that he was prepared to do whatever it took to win.
On this night, the Ravens just needed a mistake-free performance from their quarterback and a flawless one from their kicker.
“This puts us back in the picture and it never gets old,” said running back Ray Rice who had 32 yards on 12 carries and 38 yards on six catches. “This was a hard-hitting game on both sides of the ball, and we're just happy to come away with the win.”