Pittsburgh Steelers Playoff Game

15 January 2011

Longtime readers know that I'm a huge sports fan. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore and my sports loyalties are to the local teams: the Baltimore Orioles, the Baltimore Ravens, and to my undergraduate and postgraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland Terrapins. I've had the opporunity to see all of these teams many times in person, both in their home venues and on the road in enemy stadiums. At the beginning of the 2011 calendar year, all eyes in the Baltimore area were focused on the Ravens football team. The Ravens had made the playoffs for the third season in row under head coach John Harbaugh, concluding an excellent campaign with a record of 12 wins against 4 losses. They had tied for first place with their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Steelers ended up winning the NFL's arcane tiebreaking rules and were able to stay at home for their playoff games while the Ravens were forced to go on the road as a wildcard team. The Ravens easily dominated their opening round opponent in the playoffs, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 30-7 that wasn't even as close as the score indicated. They had a highly talented team and were a serious threat to win the Super Bowl this year. When we saw that the Ravens would be matched up against the Steelers in the next round of the playoffs, we said "let's go!" and immediately purchased four tickets. Ravens vs. Steelers in the playoffs with the winner going to the AFC title game? That was a rare opportunity that I didn't want to pass up.

The game was scheduled for the Saturday afternoon time slot, and we started out the day by making the lengthy four hour drive from Baltimore to Pittsburgh in the morning. We had family friends who lived in Pittsburgh and stopped in to see them first, where we were greeted at the door by a raven hanging in a yellow noose holding a Terrible Towel. Needless to say, our hosts were Steelers fans and were hoping in good-natured fashion for the Ravens football team to be sent home with a defeat. It's hard for me to put into words how intense the rivalry was between these two teams at the time, both of them stacked full of future Hall of Fame players and emphasizing defensive-first hard hitters. The Steelers had knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs two years earlier en route to winning the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, and now the Ravens were eager to get some payback. The Ravens had already won a game in Pittsburgh earlier this season when quaterback Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass with 30 seconds left, but then the Steelers had turned that around and won a game in Baltimore thanks to an iconic strip-sack by safety Troy Polamalu, with the teams splitting the regular season matchup at one win apiece. Their third playoff meeting would have considerably higher stakes.

The sports stadiums in Pittsburgh have a wonderful location, situated in the middle of the downtown along the banks of the Alleghany River right at the point where it meets with the Monongahela to form the Ohio River. This was the rationale behind the name of the old stadium in Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Stadium, which was demolished years ago to make room for the current football stadium. Just like in Baltimore, the baseball and football stadiums are located next to each other in Pittsburgh so that they can share the same parking lots. These are pictures of PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one of the most beautiful baseball stadiums anywhere. I won't say that PNC Park is superior to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but I will say that it matches it, and that's high praise indeed. I've seen a couple of Pirates games in this stadium and it's an absolutely fantastic place to watch a baseball game, especially when the wind is blowing out to right field and there's a chance for home runs to land in the river. Here in January, the baseball stadium was covered in a layer of white snow, awaiting the start of the next season to begin.

We knew the hotel where the Ravens were staying in Pittsburgh and managed to catch some of the players and coaches as they boarded the buses to head to the stadium. The enormous man in the first picture was center Matt Birk, a veteran player who helped to anchor the offensive line of the Ravens. He was reaching the end of his career and hoping to win a championship with the team before retiring. The man in the glasses in the second picture was offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who often was the recipient of heavy criticism from the fanbase for his conversative play calling. This era of Ravens football was one that heavily emphasized the defense, and some of the offensive stats on these teams could be pretty ugly. Finally we saw head coach John Harbaugh himself, who very kindly came over to shake hands with some of the fans and thank them for traveling to Pittsburgh for the game. I've been a big fan of Harbaugh over his lengthy tenure as the Ravens head coach, not only because he's been frequently successful but also because he's been willing to be aggressive about going for it on fourth downs and trying to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. That doesn't always work out, but football analytics has demonstrated pretty conclusively that most head coaches are far too conservative on these decisions. Harbaugh is well-liked by his players and has done a better job than most at adapting to changes over time in football theory.

It was a festive day to be out and about in Pittsburgh, with a decorated Christmas tree still standing in the downtown area near the skating rink. Everyone that we came across seemed to be wearing yellow and black colors, looking forward to the game later that afternoon. Our path also took us near historic Fort Pitt, located on the little triangle of land where the rivers converge. Fort Pitt was named after William Pitt the Elder (Lord Chatham), a British prime minister in the 1760s, and it was the capture of this location from the French that heralded one of the major victories for the British and colonial forces in the Seven Years War of 1756-1763. I need to come back to Pittsburgh sometime to visit the museum here, with me having a doctorate in British imperial history and all that. Anyway, from Fort Pitt we could see directly across the Allegheny River to the focal point of this day's competition: Heinz Field. If you ever watch a Steelers home game on television, the announcers talk a lot about "the open end" of Heinz Field (it's the right side on the TV broadcasts), where kicking field goals is noticeably more difficult due to the winds that swirl in off the river. These views made it obvious why the open end causes so many difficulties for players: the stadium really is completely wide open on the south side that faces the river.

Now it was time to head into the stadium, and we converged with a stream of fans pouring into Heinz Field for the game. The yellow and black colors of the Steelers fans were overwhelming, with small dots of Ravens purple popping up here and there in sea of otherwise bumblebee-colored outfits. We were wearing Ravens attire and endured some hecking from the other fans, but nothing more than verbal taunting fortunately. Our seats were in the upper deck of the closed end of the stadium, admittedly one of the worst places to watch a football game. But we were still there nonetheless, and the whole stadium had an electric feeling as the clock slowly ticked down towards kickoff. While this wasn't a great place to see the action on the field, it did offer some spectacular views of the Pittsburgh skyline looking out through the open end of the stadium across the river. It was cold, windy, and getting dark as afternoon began to fade towards evening: perfect conditions for playoff football.

The pictures above were taking during the warmups for each team, with the last one taken just before kickoff with the whole stadium on its feet and cheering. And the local fans had plenty to cheer about at the outset of the game, as the Steelers took the ball 80 yards on their first drive (albeit with 48 of those yards coming on penalties!) for an early touchdown and a 7-0 lead. We were groaning in our seats even as the rest of the stadium was celebrating, here we go again with another house of horror shows in Pittsburgh. But things quickly flipped from there, and the rest of the first half was dominated by the Ravens. The offense put together their best drive of the game, marching the length of the field for a Ray Rice touchdown that tied the score at 7-7. On the subsequent Steelers drive, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked by Terrell Suggs and fumbled the ball, picked up by the Ravens and run back for a touchdown. Suddenly it was 14-7 Ravens and the stadium was a lot less noisy. Later in the second quarter, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall fumbled the ball as well, leading to a very short field for the Ravens and a Todd Heap receiving touchdown. 21-7 Ravens. Even more disastrously for the home team, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had disastrously mismanged his challenges, using up both of them in the FIRST QUARTER (!) leaving him with no challenges for the rest of the game. The first half capped off with Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham missing a fairly easy 43 yard field goal to keep the score at 21-7 Ravens at halftime. We were cautiously optimistic, hoping that the lead would hold up given how well the Ravens defense had been playing. I thought that if the Ravens could avoid turning the ball over themselves, they would very likely be the winners.

Unfortunately for Baltimore fans, the Ravens were unable to hold onto the football in the second half. The defense stopped the initial possession from the Steelers and forced a punt, but then the offense began to disintegrate with self-inflicted errors. The first offensive possession of the second half resulted in a Ray Rice fumble that allowed the Steelers to take over on the 20 yard line and punch in an easy touchdown. The second offensive possession was a three-and-out sequence that went 12 yards backwards. The third offensive possession saw Joe Flacco throw an interception on the first play, with a lengthy Steelers return on the interception allowing them to take over on the Ravens 25 yard line. Another short field, another easy touchdown for the Steelers, and the score was now tied at 21-21. The fourth offensive possession resulted in another Ravens fumble, this time by Joe Flacco, and the Steelers took over on the Ravens 25 yard line again on a short field. This time the defense held them to a field goal, but the score was now 24-21 Steelers and the Ravens had completely thrown away their first half advantage. Four total posessions: fumble, negative 12 yard three-and-out, interception, fumble. Seriously guys, what the heck was that?! If they had taken a knee three straight plays and punted each time, they would have been better off. Argh.

At this point, the fourth quarter now turned into one of those classic Steelers-Ravens nailbiters with the game seemingly riding on the outcome of every play. The Ravens finally made a huge play, running a punt back for a touchdown, only for it to be called back on an extremely dubious holding penalty. This proved to be an absolute killer, as the Ravens were only able to get a field goal to tie at 24-24 on the possession instead of going ahead by four points. On the subsequent drive, the Steelers were facing a virtually impossible 3rd and 19 situation... only for Antonio Brown to somehow haul in a 58 yard catch down to the Ravens 4 yard line. That produced the loudest roar that we heard from the stadium all day, and Brown would spent the next decade torturing the Ravens with one impossible catch after another. The Ravens still had a chance to hold the Steelers to a field goal, except that the refs bizarrely called defensive holding on a running play (WTF?!) that turned a third and goal play from the 4 yard line into first and goal at the 2 yard line, and of course the Steelers were able to punch the ball in from there. A final desperation Ravens drive stalled out at midfield and the Steelers kneed out the last minute of the clock from there. 31-24 Steelers victory.

It was another classic game in a great rivalry, but I was bitter about the result then and remain bitter about it today. The game was right there for the taking and it was quite literally fumbled away by the Ravens thanks to a horrendous third quarter offensive performance and some shaky officiating that always seemed to go in favor of the home team. If the offense had simply been mediocre instead of terrible, the Ravens almost certainly would have won the game. Alternately, if the defense could have gotten that 3rd and 19 stop, the Ravens would have gotten the ball back with 2:00 remaining and all three of their timeouts left in a tie game. There was plenty of blame to go around in letting this game slip through their fingers. To make things even more maddening, the Mark Sanchez-led New York Jets somehow defeated the New England Patriots on the very next day, which means that the Ravens would have had a home game against the Jets to go to the Super Bowl. Instead, the Steelers played those same Jets and beat them 24-19 to go to the Super Bowl, where they thankfully did lose to the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers. I have no idea if the Ravens could have beaten that Packers team, but I would have loved to see them get their shot. I shouldn't be upset about this because the Ravens won the Super Bowl two years later at the end of the 2012 season, but some sports losses always stick with you. This was the second-worst defeat that I've ever experienced in person. (The worst was Maryland basketball losing to Duke in January 2001, in a game where they were 10 points ahead with 50 seconds remaining and somehow lost. I still can't explain how it happened.)

Regardless of how frustrating the outcome may have been, I did enjoy the chance to see an oustanding playoff game in person at a hostile road stadium. If there was any upside to the loss, we were able to make it out of Heinz Stadium with life and limb intact. If the Ravens had won the game in Pittsburgh and knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs (as they would do four years later in 2014), I'm not sure that we would have made it out of there. I'm kidding - I think. Thanks for reading.