Like much of Baltimore
, when I'd heard Big Ben Roethlisberger was out and Byron "Byron Leftwich Is Still Alive?" Leftwich would be starting for the Steelers, I penciled in a Ravens win-I penciled it in in ink. Then Leftwich capped a two-play opening drive with a startling touchdown run, faking out safety Bernard Pollard so bad, he's still in Pittsburgh looking for his jock, and then I started thinking about what I was missing on
The Walking Dead
On a night when the Steelers' throwback uniforms had them looking like backup dancers in a Blind Melon video, the Ravens' offense decided to take the night off. The Ravens answered Pittsburgh's opening touchdown drive with an uninspired three-and-out that set the tone for the evening. Baltimore managed only six points on offense and their longest drive of the night was a depressing 48-yard affair that ended in a missed field goal. But give it to Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and company, they went into Pittsburgh and faced off against the No. 1 defense in football, and while they didn't make the big plays, they didn't make any mistakes either. There wasn't much for Rice to work with, but he hit the Steelers line like a 212-pound ball-peen hammer; and Flacco kept Pittsburgh honest, got rid of the ball when he should, and didn't turn it over. Anquan Boldin's eight catches for 79 yards was probably the lone bright spot.
The sad-sack Ravens defense, on the other hand, had a heck of a night. Linebacker Paul Kruger, who seems to love playing Pittsburgh, had the best game of his career with a huge sack (and that is NOT what she said. I'll write the jokes here, mister), a forced fumble, and generated constant pressure. Corey Graham, who was filling in at cornerback for the injured Jimmy Smith, was another standout. He had an interception and made a spectacular play, shedding a pick and diving to get a hand on the ball to break up what would have been a touchdown late in the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees had this unit humming all night and may have finally found his groove. Of course, it didn't hurt that Haloti Ngata looked healthy for the first time in weeks and was a force in the middle, and Terrell Suggs is looking more and more like his old self.
And despite Justin Tucker's 41-yard field goal miss-only his second of the season-special teams was otherworldly. The Ravens' coverage units were airtight, and the return unit provided the play of the game. Return man/end-zone mime Jacoby Jones (the first person who can tell me what Jacoby Jones is doing in his touchdown celebration gets $14, a ham sandwich, and a can of Narragansett), who has been masterful all season, fielded a first-quarter Pittsburgh punt at the Baltimore 37 and ripped through the Steelers' coverage unit nearly untouched for his third return touchdown as a Raven. It was the second time Jones won a game for Baltimore this season, and his acquisition is looking more and more like another stroke of Ozzie Newsome genius.
But other than the Jones return and Leftwich's early TD scamper, it was a dull game that looked more like the low-scoring 2000 Ravens than the squad that dropped 55 on the Raiders last week. The most interesting moment for me came when the NBC broadcast team who ran a graphic detailing that, coming into the game, the Steelers had run 62 percent of their running plays inside the tackles and only 5 percent outside, leaving me to wonder if the remaining 33 percent of the time Rashard Mendenhall was getting piggyback rides from tackle Max Starks.
It may sound like my glass is half-empty, but this was a huge win and I honestly couldn't be happier. Standings don't get an asterisk because the Steelers were without Big Ben, and winning by three looks as good as winning by 35 when they're deciding who wins the AFC North, and the Ravens are in a commanding spot to do just that. With eight wins against two losses, the second best record in the AFC, Baltimore is not just a lock to make the playoffs; it would take a monumental collapse for them to lose the division. They're up two games on the Roethlisbergerless Steelers, with only six games to go. (BTW, if you're ever in Pittsburgh, don't buy the Roethlisberger cookies. They are only sold in bar bathrooms and, while deliciously fudgy, they'll go straight to your hips or any part of you normally covered by a bathing suit.) If they can hold on, they'll likely get at least one home playoff game, and the Ravens have one of the best home-field records in the NFL over the last decade and have won 16 straight at M&T. Expect the Ravens to make another deep run in the playoffs, and if the defense can hang together like it did against Pittsburgh, they might be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy again come February.
And on another note, it's Thanksgiving, and I've got a lot to be thankful for this year, not the least of which is getting to write this column for
. Big thanks to all the folks at the paper for giving me this shot, and even bigger thanks to you for reading it. Good job, you! And I'm thankful for the incredible high school football tradition in this town. On Nov. 3, City and Poly met for the 124th time. It's the second oldest high school football rivalry in the universe, dating back to 1889, and this year City took the crown, 20-14. Kudos to both squads and here's hoping they can bring back the Turkey Day doubleheader that used to be a fixture in this town. Which brings us to the new kids on the block. Loyola and Calvert Hall have only been playing since 1920 and will be meeting for only the 93rd time on Thanksgiving. I'll be at M&T rooting for my alma mater, Loyola. The Cardinals finished No. 2 in the MIAA this year, but I think Loyola is gonna crush 'em! Do it for me, win one for the Spitballer! Roll, Dons, roll!