PITTSBURGH — The Ravens agonized for nearly a year about their inability to get one fourth-quarter defensive stop last Christmas Day. The front office spent much of the offseason solidifying the defense so what happened last year when the Pittsburgh Steelers drove 75 yards and Antonio Brown scored the game-winning touchdown to secure the AFC North title wouldn’t happen again.
Given another opportunity, the Ravens defense again squandered it, blowing an 11-point lead in the game’s final seven minutes and allowing 19 fourth-quarter points in a crushing 39-38 loss to the Steelers in front of an announced 60,069 on Sunday night at Heinz Field.
Chris Boswell’s 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds to play clinched another division title for the Steelers (11-2), their first season sweep of the Ravens since 2008 and significantly thinning the Ravens’ margin of error over their final three games in their quest to return to the postseason.
At 7-6, they still hold the sixth and final playoff spot over the Buffalo Bills (7-6) and Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) based on tiebreaker criteria. It’s very possible that the Ravens will have to win out, starting Sunday at winless Cleveland, to qualify for the postseason.
“This one hurts,” said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs whose defense has given up 40 fourth-quarter points in its past two trips to Heinz Field. “To lose to them the same way we did last year, this one sucks. But we’ve got to get over it.”
The Ravens saw their three-game winning streak end in agonizing fashion as the Steelers ran off 16 points in the final 9:15 to win in the highest-scoring game in the rivalry’s history. The teams entered the night ranked in the top five in the NFL in fewest points allowed, but the game featured 958 yards of total offense.
The Ravens, who moved the ball at will on the Steelers for much of the night, held a 31-20 advantage after they scored 17 consecutive points in a dominant third quarter and led 38-29 after Buck Allen’s second rushing touchdown with 6:44 remaining.
However, Le’Veon Bell scored his third touchdown of the night on an 11-yard run to cut the Ravens’ lead to 38-36 with 3:29 to play. The Ravens then went three-and-out, giving the ball back to Ben Roethlisberger who led Pittsburgh to points on its first four possessions and his last four.
Roethlisberger hit tight end Jesse James, who found space in the middle of the field all game, for 16 yards to convert on third-and-13. Three plays later, Roethlisberger made one of his best throws of the night to hit Brown for 34 yards down the near sideline. Brown finished the game with 11 catches for 213 yards.
The Ravens defense stiffened to force a field-goal attempt by Boswell who connected for his fourth game-winner in the past five games. However, that was enough.
"It's tough to put in words, giving the game away like that,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said after a game in which Roethlisberger completed 44 of 66 passes for 506 yards and two touchdowns. “Just frustrated, to say the least. Disappointed. If you told me the offense would've put up 38 points against them, I would've 100 percent say we would've won. It's just tough. We didn't make the plays."
Trailing by one point, the Ravens got the ball back with 42 seconds to go. However, they burned their final timeout to avoid a time runoff when wide receiver Jeremy Maclin went down injured on the first play of the drive. Four plays later, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked by T.J. Watt and fumbled the ball out of bounds. Because a fumble out of bounds cannot stop the clock, the game was over.
“It was a different game but the same results,” Flacco said when asked about Sunday’s similarity to the Ravens’ last trip to Heinz Field. “I definitely thought we played well tonight, but we didn’t win the game. We were not able to do it.”
Aside from an interception on the Ravens first drive, Flacco had a solid night, completing 20 of 35 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
After falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Ravens offense temporarily took over the game in the middle two quarters, getting points on five straight possessions. During that stretch, Flacco hit Chris Moore on a 30-yard touchdown pass and defensive tackle turned fullback Patrick Ricard for a 6-yard score, the undrafted rookie’s second in as many games.
However, much of the heavy lifting was done by the Ravens running game. The Ravens rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 26 attempts. Alex Collins, who finished with 120 rushing yards and 46 receiving, scored on an 18-yard touchdown run to cut the Ravens’ deficit to 17-14 just after the two-minute warning in the second quarter.
Allen’s 1-yard touchdown plunge, after a long run by Collins got the Ravens to the goal line, gave the Ravens their first lead at 24-20 with 5:20 left in the third quarter. Allen’s second score, this one from 9 yards out, extended the Ravens’ lead to 38-29 at the 6:44 mark.
“We ran the ball well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I thought Alex Collins and the offensive line did a great job in blocking and running the ball. We made some plays in the passing game with Mike [Wallace] and Jeremy making big plays for us. We executed. I thought they did a great job. It’s good to see. We have a very good offense. Everybody quit writing about that, and let’s go try and win the next game.”
The Ravens entered the game having outscored the opposition by a league-best 111-44 margin in the fourth quarter. The rallying call for the Ravens all season has been to finish. When they led 31-20 early in the fourth quarter, the defense needed one stop.
It never came as the Steelers made it a one-possession game on a Boswell 24-yard field goal and then Roethlisberger’s 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Roosevelt Nix cut the Pittsburgh deficit to 31-29 after the Ravens stopped Bell on the 2-point conversion attempt.
The defense got yet another chance to close the deal after Allen’s second touchdown run. However, the Steelers scored on their final two possessions, stunning the Ravens again.
Without injured cornerback Jimmy Smith, the Ravens defense has given up 59 points in the past six quarters of play.
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“Everybody has to hold their own: offense, defense and special teams,” Suggs said. “In the fourth quarter, the defense dropped the ball tonight. That’s kind of been our thing all year, consistency.”