PITTSBURGH – Baltimore coach John Harbaugh stood just inside the locker room, looking more drained than some of his players from the latest Ravens-Steelers brawl disguised as a football game.
Like his players, Harbaugh was almost too tired to shed his game outfit and head to the shower. One after another, he greeted his player with a hug or handshake of appreciation as they walked by, knowing full well that his squad was battered even before this game began. So it's somewhat odd that against this backdrop of brutality, Harbaugh remarked that the biggest play of the game was a timeout. Yeah, that's overstating it, but not by much. As the 8-2 Ravens eked out a 13-10 win over 6-4 Pittsburgh and pushed their lead in the AFC North to two games, the end of this game became just as much about subtlety as substance.
With 2:04 remaining and Baltimore facing a third-and-6 play, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin elected to use his final timeout. It's a common mistake even by coaches at this level. Tomlin, who is known around the NFL as a great manager of people but is considered a suspect game manager, explained that he was trying to bait a trap, hoping to "influence them into throwing it."
Instead what happened is that Tomlin ended up trapping his woebegone offense, a unit that was playing without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The quarterback's absence showed throughout the game as Pittsburgh rarely moved the ball with any authority.
Thus, after the Steelers jumped offside and caused the clock to run to the two-minute warning, the Ravens could afford to play safe rather than take any risk.
"That timeout was everything at the end," said Harbaugh, whose team was at its own 43-yard line after the offsides penalty. Instead of having to take a chance to throw for a first down, Harbaugh and his coaches played it safe. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco still dropped to throw, but he was under strict instruction.
[Week 11 winners/losers: Another Brady-Peyton playoff matchup coming?]
"If he saw something pop open, fine. If not, just take the sack and let the 40 seconds run down," said Harbaugh, who saw his quarterback take a 3-yard loss on the play. "At that point, those 40 seconds were everything. We knew that once we ran the clock down, we could just punt it away and let them try to drive the field."
In other words, Harbaugh could play the odds rather than having to risk more hand-to-hand combat. That's a welcome respite in this rivalry, especially after Pittsburgh failed to mount a scoring drive on its final possession.
Ultimately, nothing in this matchup ever comes easy and the games are often decided by the improbable. For instance, it was the Steelers who jumped out first by parlaying a 42-yard pass interference penalty and a 31-yard touchdown run by Leftwich into a 7-0 lead. Before you read any further, understand that Leftwich's run, by itself, is the equivalent of hitting a Powerball lottery.
That play was not only the longest run of Leftwich's 10-year career, but it amounted to more rushing yards than he had in a season going back to 2007. The play was so absurd that Tomlin, despite the dour mood of defeat, could only laugh when asked about it.
Leftwich was a tad defensive about it, reiterating his belief that he's not as stiff-legged as some people might believe.
Josh Freeman at Carolina
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the road in Week 11 on Saturday, hoping to extend their current win streak to four by beating the Carolina Panthers for the second time this season. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who entered the game with five consecutive multi-touchdown games, did not disappoint by turning in the NFL's best road performance of the week.
Freeman threw for 248 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-46 passing and did most of his damage when Tampa Bay needed him most by making big plays in the fourth quarter and in overtime of a 27-21 road victory.
Down by eight with 1:02 remaining, Freeman drove the Bucs down the field, capping the clutch drive with a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to receiver Vincent Jackson with only 12 seconds left. Then in the first possession of overtime, Freeman led an 80-yard drive that ended with a game-winning TD pass to tight end Dallas Clark.
Thanks to Freeman's big road performance, the Bucs moved to 6-4 to remain in second place in the NFC South and stay in playoff contention.
– Mike Patton
"I joke with my teammates all the time," said Leftwich, who didn't have any other runs in the game. "I am not a slow quarterback. I'm just the slowest black quarterback. I can move around just as good as any of these other pocket passers in this league."
That makes for a funny remark, but it's not completely true. Leftwich is slow in any color. Combine that with his sundial-slow throwing motion that appeared impacted late in the game after he took some big hits, and you have a quarterback who drastically changes the way the Steelers have to play on offense. By the end of this game, the Ravens were blitzing Leftwich with impunity on obvious passing downs.
The Steelers' offense sputtered all game. Of 13 possessions, the Steelers had only two that featured more than 40 yards of offensive yardage gained. The Ravens' offense struggled as well (just 200 yards), but the Steelers were going against a 25th-ranked Baltimore defense that has dealt with injuries to players such as Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata.
In this situation, the outcome would likely come down to which team got the biggest play. The Ravens did that in the first half when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a score.
But the flipside is that the Steelers didn't do enough little things to help themselves. In the third quarter, Leftwich was forced to burn timeouts on back-to-back plays inside the Baltimore 10-yard line. That left the Steelers with the one timeout for the entire fourth quarter. Once the last one was gone, the Ravens played it safe. They eventually punted, giving the ball to Pittsburgh at its own 16 with 1:05 remaining, no timeouts and a ponderous, beaten-up Leftwich trying to get something going.
At that point, the NFL's most brutal matchup was no longer a fight.
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