Monday, January 24, 2011

A Brutal Rivalry Renewed

I've had the good fortune to attend a handful of regular season NFL games. However, my first playoff game was a week ago at Heinz Field to witness my favorite team - the Pittsburgh Steelers do battle against the Baltimore Ravens. I chose to write this article not to provide a synopsis of the game, but rather, to discuss the atmosphere of a playoff game.

All I can say is thank goodness that the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Winter Classic this year. You may say, what in the world does this have to do with playoff football? Well, without the temporary bleachers that were erected behind the south endzone, I probably wouldn't have gotten tickets. My wife and I got seats a few rows up with a view directly between the goalpost uprights. They provided a fantastic perspective of the field of play, one that you rarely get on television.

The matchup that we witnessed was between two bitter rivals who have equal part respect and loathing for one another. The Baltimore Ravens franchise came into existence in 1996, when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell decided to chase the money and move the Ohio city's beloved team to Baltimore. The Steelers and Browns shared a rivalry that lasted not for years or decades, but generations. People from each city usually use colorful language when describing folks from the other town. When the Browns disappeared, the Steelers were left without a natural rival.  But, by the beginning of the new century, Baltimore proved to be the replacement for the rival Browns (even though Cleveland got its franchise back in 1999).

The recent history of the rivalry has been fairly even. Ray Lewis has been the heart and soul of the Ravens team since its inception. Primarily due to their stellar play on defense, the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. The Steelers once proud Super Bowl tradition was invigorated by championship wins in 2006 and 2009. The two teams have combined for nine of the last eleven AFC North division titles (Cincinnati won it in 2005 and 2009). The teams mirror one another with their styles of play - you can count on facing a hard-hitting, stout defense any time you face either one of these teams.

Yet, when these two teams square off against one another, the hitting is turned up more than a few notches. We all know the vicious hits that have been a part of the fabric of this rivalry. The first few images that come to mind are Willis McGahee being nearly decapitated by a torpedo strike from Ryan Clark in the 2008 AFC Championship. I can't forget a regular season contest in the 2008 season where Ray Lewis tackled Rashard Mendenhall so hard that his scapula broke. I don't think I've ever heard of that injury occurring in an NFL game before or since. The most deflating hit came in the 2006 season when Bart Scott came untouched for one of the Ravens' nine sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. Both players still mention that hit. Scott lauds himself for knocking all the air out of "Big Ben," while Ben recalls that was probably the hardest he's ever been hit. Then, there is the incessant jawing between the combatants. Hines Ward gets under opponents' skin with his aggressive play at the wide receiver position. Ed Reed and company give it right back to the man with the ever-present smile. You get the point - it's nasty. Smash mouth football at its finest.

Both teams stepped onto Heinz Field that freezing cold day (game time temperatures were in the low 30s) with something to prove. The Steelers wanted to keep the Ravens down by defeating them for the third time in as many tries in playoff games. Baltimore wanted to show that they were the team to be reckoned with, and that Joe Flacco can win a meaningful contest with the game on the line.

 A glimpse from afar of the tailgating scene outside Heinz Field

For the majority of games that I’ve attended, you walk in and see some late-arriving people get to their seats. When we finished tailgating with friends nearly an hour before gametime, it was as if a sea of people began moving towards the entrances to the stadium. You'd better get in, get your seat, lock in your chinstrap because the epic battle was due to begin. By the time the anthem was being played, you could feel the wave of emotion in the crowd. The fighter jets flying over elicited an ovation that drowned out the end of the Star-Spangled Banner. 

The starting defensive lineup being announced to the delight of a Terrible Towel waving crowd

The home crowd was ecstatic when the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive. As the first half progressed, the fans were very antsy because the Ravens had hung 21 points on their team, thanks primarily to two turnovers that set up Baltimore for quick scores. As the half came to a close, Pittsburgh missed a field goal after sustaining a decent but unspectacular drive. The best way I can describe the vibe at halftime was seething. There were a lot of grumbles. There were a select few who were choosing this moment to begin increasing the vulgarities towards men wearing purple jerseys in the stands. And, I overheard one individual guaranteeing a Steeler victory.

What the crowd needed was a spark...something to get everyone back in the game. For the beginning of the third quarter during regular season games, you would regularly see many seats open seats due to restroom lines, the need for more food, or last call for alcohol. Not tonight. There were still some seats open, but the crowd was ready and waiting for something...anything to happen. Pittsburgh got the ball to start and began driving, but stalled before reaching scoring range. When Baltimore got the ball back, they decided not to go into an offensive shell and mix up the playcalling. On a third and long, a safe play turned into disaster for the road team...and started the next 90 minutes where the crowd was in a frenzy. The short pass to Ray Rice, a man who never fumbles, was stripped by safety Ryan Clark and recovered by LaMarr Woodley. Two short plays later, Roethlisberger pump faked, then hit a wide open Heath Miller for an easy TD pass. The crowd had arrived!

After the ensuing kickoff, a television timeout afforded the Heinz Field public address system to simply say, "You want it, you got it," before beginning the rallying cry for Steeler faithful. The jumbotron went black then the images of Steeler highlights began rolling as the chords of "Renegade" by Styx could not be heard due to the throng of screaming and yelling amongst the Pittsburgh faithful. As the music went from placid to the drum beats that kick off the rocking part of the song, the Terrible Towels united as one.  It was precisely at this time that we learned why these bleachers were temporary. As the crowd throbbed, so did the stands to the tune of the entire section of bleachers pulsing back and forth nearly a foot each second. We all looked at each other like "What? Really?!" My wife only said, "Just land on your butt if we're going to fall" as we were about 12 feet off the ground.

The offensive huddle pinned deep in its own end.

The home team did not disappoint by getting the gift of a terrible read by Joe Flacco that resulted in an interception that once again positioned the Steelers for another quick score - this time, a Hines Ward touchdown catch. He promptly searched out a fellow #86 in the crowd to hand-deliver a memory to a lucky fan. The score at the third quarter was 21-21. The Pittsburghers had all the momentum and their defense had stymied a diverse Baltimore offense with only 92 yards through three quarters.

You always expect that the fourth quarter will decide the Steelers / Ravens games and this was not going to be an exception. Both teams mustered a field goal, but each team continually shot itself in the foot with dumb penalties and other gaffes. Baltimore had a punt return for a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. There was an audible gasp of horror during this play until everyone saw the yellow flag on the field. Marcus Smith was incensed that he was called for holding and visibly upset on the sideline.  Meanwhile, big money receiver Anquan Boldin failed to catch a sure touchdown pass on the goal line that would have given the Ravens a four-point lead midway through the 4th quarter.

As the Steelers began to approach midfield with four minutes to go, the palpitations of the crowd could be felt. The game is in our hands. This can be won.  Then, came a sack on first down.  Loss of nine.  Second down was a perfect pass to rookie Emmanuel Sanders, but the ball was separated from his leaping attempt by Ed Reed – incomplete.  So, it’s 3rd and 19.  The play doesn’t come in from the sideline quickly enough forcing Pittsburgh to call a time out to avoid 3rd and 24.  My goodness, the slippery slope that the game was headed down…all of a sudden, the possibility that Baltimore could get the ball back with two minutes and three time outs against the Steelers’ inconsistent secondary was becoming a reality.  Then, lightning struck.

Roethlisberger fires a long pass to rookie Antonio Brown, who gets one step behind the Baltimore cornerback.  58 yards later, the crowd erupts as Brown pins the ball to his helmet to secure the catch before going out of bounds.  Most of us didn’t even see how he pulled it in, but we knew that the big play just happened.  The crowd was able to revel in the glory of that play during the two-minute warning.  The previously half-naked guy (who smartened up and put on his clothes) hugged me like a long-lost brother.  It was a sense of euphoria.  Five plays later, Rashard Mendenhall made a tough goal line run to punch in what proved to be the winning score.  It felt like the end of the film “Rudy.”

Of course, we had to rely on the defense one more time…and they didn’t disappoint.  Ziggy Hood’s third down sack put the Ravens in a precarious 4th and 18, also forcing John Harbaugh to call his final timeout with just over a minute to go.  An abbreviated version of “Renegade” was played, but the crowd didn’t need any prodding.  The screams of DE-FENSE were growing in intensity, not lessening.  As the 4th down play transpired, T.J. Houshmandzadeh easily shook William Gay’s coverage to get wide open for what would have been a first down pass.  But, he dropped the ball that was well-placed by the Ravens’ quarterback.  As T.J. stormed off the field in obvious frustration that he let his team down, Heinz Field nearly imploded.  Ravens fans scurried out, Steelers fans were able to celebrate another playoff victory over their archrival.

A postgame view of the jumbotron underneath the giant ketchup bottles

The regular season tilts that I’ve seen pale in comparison with the Steelers / Ravens playoff game.  It was well worth the price of admission.  There may not have been any breathtaking hits to recollect (no, the headbutts between Ike Taylor and T.J. Houshmandzadeh don’t count), but the magnitude of each play was its own scene in a five-act drama.  The postgame wave of relief, giddiness, joy, and festival-like atmosphere extended from the stadium in every direction in a web-like fashion.

I, for one, was fairly certain that would have been the last game played at Heinz Field in the 2010-2011 season.  But, the New York Jets had different ideas, allowing Pittsburgh to host the AFC Championship game.  The crowd must have been as fired up for that showdown with the Super Bowl on the line.

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