10:36 PM EST, December 2, 2012
You could feel the love from the opening kickoff.
Even as Jacoby Jones took a knee in the end zone, things were getting chippy. Forearms were flying, shoves were traded and the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were exchanging the usual pleasantries that go along with the most heated rivalry in the NFL.
But in the end, it was the Steelers who were the tougher team Sunday, tough enough to steal a 23-20 win at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens had won 16 straight dating back to December 2010.
Remember the fat guy who wrote in this newspaper the other day that if Ben Roethlisberger didn't play, the Steelers were toast?
He stands before you in this space red-faced and penitant, that prediction undone by, of all people — oh, I can barely type these words with my fat little fingers — Charlie Batch.
Yes, that Charlie Batch, the Steelers third-string quarterback who turns 38 Wednesday, which practically qualifies for a rocking chair and a shawl around the shoulders in the NFL.
Give the old guy credit, though. He was jittery in the pocket and floated enough knuckleballs to have the Steelers coaches clutching their chests on the sideline.
But the bottom line was this: Batch played well enough to win. And in a slugfest like this one, that can sometimes be the ultimate compliment.
As for the Ravens, let's start with this: Joe Flacco had a bad game. There's no other way to say it.
In his post-game remarks, John Harbaugh refused to criticize his quarterback, which was the absolute right thing to do.
Instead, Harbaugh said the Ravens' struggles started with him, which is pretty much what you have to do as an NFL coach after an ugly loss and a shaky outing by your signal-caller.
"It's just a group thing, a team thing," Harbaugh said. "It's not our job to stand up here and assign blame to any individual. And I'm not going to do that, haven't done that and I won't do it. It starts with me putting guys in position to make plays."
Well, maybe. But Flacco had problems with his rhythm and his throws all game long. And everyone could see it.
He was 16-for-34 passing for 188 yards and a touchdown, with one interception and a lousy passer rating of 61.9.
Sure, in the waning minutes of the second quarter, he threw that beautiful 28-yard strike to Anquan Boldin in the left corner of the end zone, a pass that was as much art as anything else.
But too often he was throwing up floaters of his own and turning in a wildly-inconsistent performance, especially in the fourth quarter, when it counted most.
The bottom line is this: Flacco is in his fifth season now and he has to play better in big games like this, on the big stage of a late-season playoff run.
Standing in front of his locker 15 minutes after the game's end, he gamely answered questions, although he still seemed puzzled about why the offense had gagged and clutched for most of the game.
"I don't know, it's just kind of what happens," he said, a weary look on his face. "We put ourselves in some situations that weren't good. Too many third-and-longs. It's not very easy to convert some of those."
True enough. But nothing in this game comes easy for anyone. And that's why quarterbacks get paid the big bucks, to make big plays in pressure situations and and pull out wins.
As we've been hearing for months, Flacco is looking for a big contract, something on the order of $100 million for seven years.
But an outing like he had Sunday will make the Ravens think long and hard about giving him that kind of dough.
Forget this business of whether Flacco is an elite quarterback. It's such a tedious argument, it makes me want to scream. The next time a TV pundit or radio talk-show host brings up the subject, he should be beaten with a stick.
The fact is, Flacco's been a damn good quarterback for the Ravens. And all he's done over the past four seasons is win and help the Ravens make the playoffs every year.
But as we all know, this is a cruel business and a bottom-line league.
And the bottom line for Flacco is this: he'll have to play better in big games than he did Sunday — way better — if he wants to cash in like the other big names at his position.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun