The Ravens and Joe Flacco got blindsided by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Flacco's fourth-quarter fumble -- which came when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu stripped him from behind -- let control of the AFC North slip from their hands in a 13-10 loss to Pittsburgh at a chilly and windy M&T Bank Stadium last night.
Three plays after Flacco's turnover, Pittsburgh running back Isaac Redman took a short third-down pass from Ben Roethlisberger, broke from Dawan Landry's grasp and scored a 9-yard touchdown as the Steelers took their first lead with 2:51 left in the game.
"It doesn't feel good," Flacco said. "I feel we gave this one away."
In a rivalry defined by bone-rattling hits, the Steelers' biggest blow came in the standings. The Ravens' first loss at home in nine games was as painful as it was costly because the Ravens (8-4) fell one game behind the Steelers (9-3) in the AFC North with four games remaining.
"We'll keep fighting like we always do," coach John Harbaugh said. "We'll find a way to get in the playoffs. We might still win the division."
Flacco, who beat Pittsburgh with a last-minute touchdown two months ago, couldn't do it Sunday night. He led the Ravens into Steelers territory but the Ravens' last gasp ended when Flacco short-hopped a pass to a wide-open Ed Dickson on fourth-and-2.
His first look was wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was covered. Flacco quickly had to change for a desperation throw to the other side of the field.
"I never got my hips back over there to put enough umph on the ball to Ed," Flacco said.
An announced crowd of 71,418 who braved the 35-degree temperatures and 31-mile-per-hour gusts left with plenty of questions as the Ravens failed to complete their second sweep of the Steelers in team history.
• Why did the Ravens go on fourth down instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal?
"It was a tough wind up there," Harbaugh said. "It was really outside our range that we designated going in. We felt like we had a better chance to get the first down than we had to kick that field goal at that time."
When a reporter pointed out that Cundiff had made three kicks from that distance or beyond, Harbaugh snapped back, "Were you down there on the field? Did you see the way those balls were tracking in the field goal pre-game? It was a tough kick. I'm pretty good at that. I've been doing it for a long time. I understand what those guys can do and what they can't do. It would have been a very low percentage kick."
• Why were the Ravens throwing the ball on second-and-5 when they had a four-point lead with 3:22 remaining? That was the play when Flacco fumbled. "I don't really sit in here and criticize my coaches' play-calling after the fact," Harbaugh said. "Never have, never will."
• And did the Ravens consider challenging the fumble? Flacco had his arm cocked back when Polamalu slapped the ball away.
"There was talk about it," Harbaugh said. "But when I saw it on tape, I didn't want to waste a timeout. It was a fumble."
Roethlisberger won his sixth straight game against the Ravens, but he wasn't the reason the Ravens failed to complete their second sweep of their division rival.
A 10-6 lead in the fourth quarter turned into a 13-10 deficit when the Ravens couldn't handle an all-out blitz by Pittsburgh. Flacco dropped back and saw Dickson wide open in the flat. What he didn't see was Polamalu barreling down from behind.
"I took three steps and raised my arm and just got it," said Flacco, who was 17-for-33 for 266 yards passing. "I was pretty shocked to see it myself."
The Ravens' defense, which dominated Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh for most of the game, couldn't take pride in its effort.
"It doesn't matter," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had three tackles for losses and five quarterback hits in one of the best games of his career. They're going to be happy as hell on that airplane back to Pittsburgh. It doesn't matter. They got the 'W'."
The Ravens' defense drew first blood to end the Steelers' opening drive. While sacking Roethlisberger on third-and-8, Haloti Ngata's left hand slammed into the face of the Pittsburgh quarterback, causing his nose to bend sideways and bleed (the Steelers said it wasn't broken). It only compounded the pain for Roethlisberger, who walked into the stadium with a protective boot on a reportedly broken right foot.
Flacco and Boldin delivered a punch of their own later in the first quarter with a 92-yard drive, the longest given up by Pittsburgh this season. Backed up to his own 3-yard line, Flacco heaved a third-and-15 pass onto the outstretched hands of Boldin for a 61-yard strike, the longest play in Boldin's short Ravens' career.
The 10-play, seven-minute series that seemed to begin in Federal Hill ended with some creativity between Flacco and Boldin. Given great protection (six seconds to scan the field), Flacco waited for Boldin to elude two Steelers in the end zone before running wide open in the middle, where he caught a 14-yard touchdown pass.
It might have been the most prolific drive for a Ravens quarterback. Flacco completed all six of his passes for 103 yards.
The Ravens' defense was relentless on Roethlisberger, sacking him twice in the first half and pressuring him countless other times. Roethlisberger didn't take the snap from under center for most of the game because of his foot injury. He lined up four yards in the backfield in a mini-shotgun formation, but he was still a sitting target with his limited mobility and inability to extend plays like he's done so much in the past.
The Ravens shut out a team in the first half for the first time this season. Roethlisberger was either getting hit or failing to hit his receivers, overthrowing them and throwing behind them. He was 9-for-19 for 92 yards at halftime.
It's been a gritty effort for the Ravens considering the injuries. They lost tight end Todd Heap on the first play from scrimmage with a hamstring injury when he pulled up on a long incompletion and decided to go without a fullback (injured Pro Bowl player Le'Ron McClain couldn't play with an ankle injury and recently signed Jason McKie was scratched).
The Steelers opened the second half with their best drive of the game, but it ended with Roethlisberger's pass bouncing off the hands of rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Shaun Suisham's 45-yard field goal, his fifth beyond 40 yards in two games for Pittsburgh, closed the Steelers to within 7-3.
The Ravens looked like they were going to respond with a touchdown after Flacco ran for 14 yards. A 5-yard illegal contact penalty on cornerback Ike Taylor on that play gave the Ravens first-and-goal from the 6-yard line.
But the Ravens couldn't capitalize in the red zone, perhaps because of a pre-game move. By not having a fullback active, the Ravens couldn't run the ball in the end zone and instead tried to spread out the Steelers.
Faced with pressure in his face on the first two downs, Flacco overthrew Boldin and tight end Ed Dickson on fade routes. On third down, Flacco had his pocket collapsing and rushed a throw that fell short to Ray Rice in the left flat.
Billy Cundiff's 24-yard field goal put the Ravens ahead, 10-3 with 7:13 left in the third quarter.
The Ravens' defense provided equal frustration to Pittsburgh, who could only manage a field goal out of a 16-play drive that took up 9 minutes, 20 seconds. With the Steelers at the Ravens' 2-yard line, linebacker Terrell Suggs dropped running back Isaac Redman for a 2-yard loss on first down and tackled Rashard Mendenhall for a 1-yard loss on second down.
Mike Wallace caught a quick, third-down pass, but cornerback Fabian Washington and safety Dawan Landry teamed up to stop the speedy wide receiver one yard short of the end zone. Suisham's 19-yard field goal inched Pittsburgh to 10-6 early in the fourth quarter.
"It's a heartbreaker. It's our rival," Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "Pittsburgh, we want to beat those guys every time, and then we wanted to take control of the division. To lose this one, we're going to have to keep fighting for the rest of the year."
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