The Christmas Day showdown, a 31-27 Steelers win that ended the Ravens' playoff hopes, was one of the biggest late-season games the NFL Network has telecast, and play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico was up to the task.
Tirico quickly established a strong rhythm to his call, and never lost it. Unlike the uninspired Kenny Albert in Fox's telecast of the Ravens last week, Tirico was pitch-perfect in terms of energy level — enthusiastic and engaged, but not over the top and screaming at any point, even during the Steelers' last drive to win the game.
Analysts Doug Flutie and Tony Dungy started quiet and slow, and Tirico had to take on the added duties of drawing them into the telecast with setups like: “Coach, what do the Ravens need to do?” In fairness to Dungy, he is not a motormouth. He is an analyst of few words, and they often turn out to be on the money.
For example, he was singing the praises of Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk throughout the game, and I wasn’t feeling it. But Juszczyk made some blocks late in the game that made good things happen for his teammates. And his touchdown run, full of sheer determination, warranted every word of praise Dungy had been giving him.
I don’t know about Flutie. Nothing he did impressed me Sunday. I wanted to know more about the quarterbacks, and he should have been the one to take me inside their games. But he didn’t.
Tirico, meanwhile, is one of smoothest and smartest play-by-play guys going, with an ability to bring outside references into his game narrative. With 13:41 left in the game, Steelers tight end Jesse James caught a pass and tried to leap over two Ravens who tackled him by the knees.
“When they go low, he goes high, or something like that,” Tirico said, paraphrasing first lady Michelle Obama’s claim as to how Democrats responded during the election campaign to Donald Trump’s harshest attacks on Hillary Clinton.
Or, after talking about how Raven kicker Justin Tucker partly attributed his coolness to singing opera in college, Tirico let viewers know that Tucker’s field-goal attempt was good by saying: “He hit the right note there.” No big deal, but just a little more intelligence than most other play-by-play announcers bring to the game.
The best thing about the telecast: the replays. They were superb. I did not see one important play or call that left me wondering at the end of the game. I felt like I saw every close and big play from more than one angle, and had clarity on it — including wide receiver Antonio Brown’s reach past the goal line with the ball to essentially send the Ravens home in bitter defeat.
Despite the ridiculous sweater Marshall Faulk wore, the NFL Network did a nice job throughout this big holiday weekend. I will take Rich Eisen, Michael Irvin and Faulk over any studio pregame lineup on any network or cable channel on any day.