The Baltimore Ravens were not the only team to raise its game to playoff level in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-17 Saturday.
The NBC broadcast crew, which was a little ragged when it last covered the Ravens and Steelers in November, came back Saturday night to show why it is the class of the field in NFL coverage.
Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth were crystal clear starting with their pre-game remarks in focusing on Terrell Suggs as the key to whether or not the Ravens could handle Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And the entire NBC operation was in near-perfect sync from the get-go.
Most of the images early in the game were of Suggs with the cameras following his every move – and the producers then offering near-instant replays of Suggs with Collinsworth doing analysis.
And the analysis made me appreciate Suggs in ways I had not, despite having seen him in a million games.
Everyone knows Suggs as a ferocious pass rusher. But with 6:55 left in the first half, for example, NBC showed Suggs starting to rush Roethlisberger only to recognize that the play was a screen to Antonio Brown. Suggs managed to quickly change direction and and bring Brown down for a gain of only two yards.
"How many guys can go inside of a pulling tackle and still get to a wide receiver on a little screen?" Collinsworth said admiringly. "Suggs is always great. I mean, he is. But when he plays Pittsburgh, he's better than that. Whatever's better than that, that's what Suggs is when he plays Ben Roethlisberger."
The replay packages and camera angles were instant and superb. I can't think of one contested play in which NBC didn't ultimately have a definitive angle. And they got them up there within seconds after the play – offering one, two and three angles when necessary.
Rapport in the booth is a tricky business, and I'll take clarity from the announcers and insight from the analysts any day. But Michaels and Collinsworth have both of those qualities – plus the best rapport of any announcing team.
With 2:34 left in the first half, Markus Wheaton fumbled a kickoff return as he was brought down by the Ravens. The question, though, was whether any part of his body hit the ground before he lost control of the ball.
On the other hand, under the heading no one can be perfect for three hours of live television, NBC Sports came back from a commercial break for the start of the fourth quarter with an aerial shot of Pittsburgh.
"Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on this mild December 3rd. Forty-five degrees," Michaels told viewers.
Hey, he was only off by a month, and it still feels like 2014 to me.
And as much as I liked Collinsworth overall Saturday, by the middle of the fourth quarter, I wondered how many times he was going to remind viewers that Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers' star running back, was out with a knee injury – and had he been able to play, the game might have gone differently. I think even Collinsworth – or his producer – knew it was getting old.
With 7:22 left in the 4th quarter, Collinsworth said, "I don't want to wear it out, but Le'Veon Bell … "
You wore it out some more when you rushed to explain Roethlisberger's last interception by saying you thought he might have been a "little groggy" after hitting his head on the turf a few plays earlier.
If he was a "little groggy," the Steelers team doctor should be criticized for not following the NFL concussion protocols you guys are always celebrating as now being so rigorous.
But that's OK. All the network announcers love Big Ben more than Joe Flacco. We expect that in Baltimore.
In the big ways that matter, NBC was outstanding Saturday. And it's nothing but good news for Baltimore fans who have long suffered with some bad CBS regional crews that Collinsworth and Michaels will again be telecasting Saturday when the Ravens meet the New England Patriots.