PITTSBURGH — The Ravens had slowed down Ben Roethlisberger for the better part of three quarters, but when they really needed a stop, the defense had no answers.
As a result, the Ravens will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. Blowing an early 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and a late three-point advantage, the Ravens fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-27, when Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 4-yard touchdown with just nine seconds to go. The score sent the 66,276 at Heinz Field into a frenzy.
The touchdown capped a 10-play, 75 yard drive after fullback Kyle Juszczyk had scored on a 10-yard run to cap a 14-play, 75-yard drive by the Ravens. However, the Ravens left too much time on the clock and a defense that allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns couldn't get a stop when it matterd.
The victory broke the Steelers' four-game losing streak to their division rival and more importantly, clinches the AFC North. The Ravens (8-7) will face the Cincinnati Bengals next week in a game that means nothing other than the Ravens trying to record a winning season.
Trailing 20-10 with just over 14 minutes to play, the Steelers scored two touchdowns, both by star running back Le'Veon Bell, in about 4 ½ minutes. Bell's first was a 7-yard scamper, set up by a pass interference call on rookie cornerback Tavon Young.
On the Steelers' next drive, Roethlisberger threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Bell to give the Steelers a 24-20 lead.
Weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr, who dropped a potential interception in the second quarter, made a diving grab on an overthrown Roethlisberger pass on the first play from scrimmage of the third quarter. The Ravens needed three plays to get in the end zone as Joe Flacco found Steve Smith Sr. in the back of the end for an 18-yard touchdown.
Flacco's two-point conversion pass, also to Smith, gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead before the second half was two minutes old.
The Steelers answered with a field goal, but the Ravens responded by getting their running game going. With Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon doing much of the damage, the Ravens drove deep into Steelers' territory and thought they had a first-and-goal. But center Jeremy Zuttah was called for a holding penalty on Dixon's 14-yard run down to the Pittsburgh 8.
The Ravens were forced to settle for a 46-yard field goal by Justin Tucker and a 17-10 lead. The Zuttah penalty loomed large, as did the Ravens' failure to punch it in the end zone on their next possession, when they took over on the Steelers' 11 after C.J. Mosley intercepted Roethlisberger.
Flacco fired a perfect throw in the corner of the end zone to Darren Waller, but the reserve tight end had the ball knocked out of his hands by Steelers defensive back and former University of Maryland standout Sean Davis. The Ravens settled for Tucker's fourth field goal, this one from 23 yards, but they badly needed a touchdown.
The Ravens did what they sought out to do in the first half, controlling the time of possession, out-gaining the Steelers and slowing the Steelers' high-powered passing attempt. Yet, they still went into halftime trailing, 7-6, because of one uncharacteristic special teams mistake and inability to finish drives.
All five of the Ravens' possessions advanced into Steelers' territory, but they were forced to settle for two field goals from Tucker. They could have had a third, but holder Sam Koch was unable to handle a high snap by Morgan Cox, resulting in a nice drive ending without points.
Otherwise, the Ravens controlled the ball for 16:07 compared to the Steelers' 13:53, and they out-gained the Steelers, 186-132. Roethlisberger had just 6-of-9 for 60 yards in the first half, but he did account for the half's only touchdown on a 20-yard strike to reserve tight end Xavier Grimble.
Just about all of Pittsburgh's first-half production came on its first drive, when they went 87 yards on nine places after forcing a Ravens' game-opening punt. Bell did much of the damage on the drive, carrying the ball six times for 39 yards. When the two teams met in November in Baltimore, Bell had only 32 rushing yards on 14 carries for the entire game.
But much like the Philadelphia Eagles did last week, the Steelers found plenty of holes early in the Ravens' second-round rushing defense. A questionable unnecessary roughness call on Mosley, who had a high hit on wide receiver Eli Rogers on an incompletion, helped set up Roethlisberger's touchdown to Grimble down the seam. Grimble was being covered by Albert McClellan and caught the ball in front of Ravens safety Eric Weddle for the 7-0 lead.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Flacco connected with wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. on a 44-yard completion, and another questionable unnecessary roughness call, this one on Steelers rookie corner Artie Burns, moved the ball to the 22-yard line. However, the Ravens' drive stalled and they had to settle for Tucker's 41-yard field goal.
On their next drive, the Ravens moved the ball to the Steelers' 17 after a 23-yard run by wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) and a 15-yard penalty on Ryan Shazier. However, Flacco was sacked by Lawrence Timmons for a loss of 10 on second down and tight end Dennis Pitta couldn't make a one-handed play on a Flacco pass in the end zone. Tucker then lined up for a 45-yard field goal but he never got a chance to kick it as Koch bobbled Cox's high snap.
Tucker did get another chance later in the second quarter and he converted from 38 yards with 22 seconds left in the second quarter. A 12-play, 53-yard drive gave Tucker the chance before intermission.