Spitbloggin’: No turkeys on Thanksgiving
Remember when I said the Ravens were done? I was just kidding. But even without the playoff implications, the Thanksgiving Day game was one to watch. Joe Flacco vs. Ben Rothlisberger is turning into the blood and guts version of Manning vs. Brady and Ravens vs. Steelers has become easily the best rivalry in the NFL. Heading into their Turkey Day contest, nine of the last thirteen games had been settled by three points. So how do they top that? How about a two-point game settled in the last minute? That sounds like Ravens-Steelers football. This game had it all. Do you like long bombs? How about Flacco to Torrey Smith for 54 yards? Are you a fan of razzle dazzle special teams? Jacoby Jones and his 73-yard return have you covered. How about bone crunching hits? Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith hit Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell so hard his helmet might have beaten the team plane back to Pittsburgh. And of course you like thrilling finishes, and these two teams delivered.
Just after the two-minute warning, it looked like the Steelers scored a possible tying touchdown that was reversed when replay showed tight end Heath Miller’s knee touched down while he was still at the one. On second down Pittsburgh seemed to score again, but an obscure rule brought back another score when Smith rung Bell and knocked off his helmet, and very nearly his head. When a player loses his helmet, the play is immediately ruled dead and no forward progress is allowed. Despite the fact that Bell crossed the plane and held onto the ball, when his helmet came loose at the half-yard line, the play was dead. Thankfully, Bell survived. Finally, on fourth down, Rothlisberger connected with Fernando Velasco for six, cutting the Ravens lead to those two, slim points, but the Baltimore defense, that frankly looked gassed in the fourth quarter held on the two point conversion and the Ravens chalked up another for the win column bringing their record to 6-6 on the season with four games to play.
The Ravens win was huge, but even bigger was the way they did it. This was the best game Baltimore has played all year. Flacco displayed preternatural pocket presence as he slipped in, out, and around the pocket extending plays while delivering precision strikes all over the field. As the temperatures drop, Flacco’s game is heating up and was hot enough to keep the wildcat off the field. And finally the Ravens ran hard. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce didn’t put up exceptional numbers, but they ran hard, earned some big first downs, and punished the Steelers all night. On defense, the Ravens generated decent pressure through much of the game, but it was on the back end where they shined. Safety James Ihedigbo had another sensational game with a pair of passes defended and cornerback Jimmy Smith, a former first round pick who had underwhelmed in his first two seasons, played like a true shutdown corner and made several strong plays in run support. Over the last five games, he has surpassed Terrell Suggs as the best defender on the team.
But as good as those units were, Special teams were, with the exception of one kickoff that went out of bounds, phenomenal. Jacoby Jones looked like the dude who danced with the stars as he spun, cut, dashed, and darted through Pittsburgh tackles all night, consistently providing the Ravens with superior field position. Throw in the Justin Tucker’s deadly accurate right leg and the sixteen points he put up with it, and this unit had a truly special night. Tucker’s five field goals on the night extended his streak to a staggering 27 straight without a miss. His right leg might be worth its weight in gold, and a few more seasons like this one, Tucker might make Baltimoreans forget the name Matt Stover.
So the Ravens are far from done, but the playoffs are hardly a lock. At 6-6, the Ravens are just two games back in the loss column in the division and hold onto that sixth playoff seed at the moment. The Titans, Dolphins, Jets, and Chargers, however, are all sitting at 5-6 and will be scrumming for that wildcard spot. The Chargers have a tough row to hoe with games remaining against the Bengals, Chiefs, and at Denver. The Titans are looking at an uphill climb going into back-to-back games on the road against the Colts and Broncos. Of course, the Ravens may have the toughest schedule of the bunch as they finish the season with three very tough games in Detroit, then at home against the Patriots and a Tom Brady surely looking for revenge, and then on the road in Cincinnati. Baltimore has to hope the Jets and Dolphins, who face each other this week and again to end the season, will take each other out. Otherwise, the up and down Jets may have the easiest schedule left and could sneak their way in with only one game remaining against a team with a winning record. This season is far from over, but it’s looking to be a bumpy ride!
I must say, however, the craziest thing to me about last night’s Ravens-Steelers game was that it wasn’t even the best football game in Baltimore on Thanksgiving. That would have to go to the Loyola vs. Calvert Hall Turkey Bowl played at Towson University’s Unitas Stadium. Tied 14-14 at the end of regulation, the two bitter high school rivals played their first overtime game in 94 contests. High School OT rules each squad had four chances to score from the ten yard line. The Dons opened up with a touchdown and extra point to take a 21-14 lead, but the Cardinals were undaunted. Calvert Hall QB Kenji Bahar through a gorgeous nine-yard corner touchdown to tight end Erik Evans and it looked like a second overtime was in the cards for the Cards, but Loyola’s Jake Nordhausen had other ideas. On the ensuing extra point attempt, the lanky junior sliced through Calvert Hall’s line and blocked Jake Soriano’s kick sealing the win and ending a four year Dons skid.
It was so exciting I nearly dropped my pan of stuffing. What a day of Baltimore football! Now cross your fingers and hope the Ravens win out and take the mystery out of this playoff race.