BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens are very much back in playoff positioning and they can thank Joe Flacco’s arm, Justin Tucker’s foot and the hands of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Who needs any variation of the Wildcat offense when your quarterback is keeping the ball out of harm’s way and your place kicker can’t seem to miss?
The Ravens built a lead, thanks to Joe Flacco’s first-half touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and five Justin Tucker field goals, four of them in the second half. They then held on for a 22-20 victory Thursday night as Sanders dropped the potential tying two-point conversion in the final minute, allowing the crowd of 71,005 on Thanksgiving night to finally exhale.
The victory got the Ravens (6-6) back to .500, and they are now in possession of the sixth and final playoff spot with a home game against the Minnesota Vikings looming in 10 days. The Steelers (5-7) had their three-game winning streak come to an end.
The pulsating win marked the fifth consecutive game in the series decided by three points or less.
Tucker’s 48-yard field goal with 5 minutes 37 seconds to go gave the Ravens a 22-14 lead, and put the game back on the shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens’ defense, which has bemoaned its inability to get off the field late in games, again couldn’t get a final stop.
The Steelers took over at their own 21 with 5:31 to go, and finally scored when Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery on a 1-yard touchdown pass on 4th and-goal with a minute, six seconds to play. The Steelers thought that they had scored on two previous plays on the drive, but both were reviewed and overturned.
However, Cotchery’s touchdown counted and cut the Ravens’ lead to 22-20. On the two-point conversion attempt, Roethlisberger found Sanders but he dropped the ball in the corner of the end zone.
The Steelers were forced to go for the onside kick and were called for illegal touching on the play, allowing the Ravens to kneel down and run out the clock.
Flacco, who took every snap with backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor remaining on the sideline, was 24-of-35 for 251 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t turn the ball over. Smith made six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Trailing 13-0 after Tucker’s 34-yard field goal ended the Ravens’ first drive of the second half, the Steelers finally got into a rhythm on offense. A 43-yard run by rookie Le’Veon Bell on 3rd-and-2 set up a 1st-and-goal situation.
On third down, Roethlisberger bought some time by moving out of the pocket and found Emmanuel Sanders alone in the back of the end zone. The 8-yard touchdown pass cut the Ravens’ lead to 13-7 and was the first that the Ravens had given up in two weeks.
But Jacoby Jones gave the Ravens the momentum right back. He returned the ensuing kickoff 73 yards, dodging Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who curiously had his back turned and was standing partially on the field. Cortez Allen ultimately caught Jones from behind to make the touchdown-saving tackle.
The Ravens advanced all the way to the Steelers’ 11 before they had to settle for Tucker’s 38-yard field goal that made it a 16-7 game.
The Ravens forced a quick three-and-out, and a 34-yard completion from Flacco to Jones again put the ball deep in Steelers’ territory. However, a dropped pass by Torrey Smith and Michael Oher’s third penalty of the night bogged down a drive.
Tucker’s fourth field goal and his 26th consecutive make – this one from 45 yards – extended the Ravens’ lead to 19-7 with 13:59 left in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh, though, was far from done. Roethlisberger engineered a 10-play, 60-yard drive that made it a one-possession game. Bell plunged it for a 1-yard touchdown run, just the second rushing touchdown the Ravens have allowed all season and the first since Week Four in Buffalo.
The talk in the days leading up to the game was about how much the Ravens would use the two-quarterback set after backup Tyrod Taylor was on the field for 12 snaps in Sunday’s victory over the New York Jets.
Flacco made his feelings on the matter well known on Tuesday, calling it a high school offense and saying it makes the Ravens not look like an NFL team. Head coach John Harbaugh declined to engage in a war-of-words with his Super-Bowl winning quarterback, though he said a day later that he was prepared to do whatever it took to win.
Perhaps, it was fitting then that on the Ravens’ first offensive play from scrimmage, Flacco rolled out to the right and let go of a bomb. Jacoby Jones ran right past Steelers quarterback William Gary, but Flacco’s pass was overthrown, resulting in an incompletion.
Four plays later, and after the Ravens had picked up a first down with a 9-yard completion to Brandon Stokley, Flacco dialed up the long ball and this time he found Torrey Smith open for a 54-yard gain. It appeared that Smith might have scored, but he was ruled down at that 1-yard line.
Harbaugh did not challenge the play and it looked like that may be an issue when Rice was stopped for no gain on first down and then Flacco was sacked for a six-yard loss on second down. However, on third-and-goal from the 7, Flacco found Smith, who beat Ike Taylor, in the middle of the end zone for the score.
It was Smith’s fourth touchdown of the season and it culminated just the Ravens’ second touchdown on a first drive this season. Flacco was 4-for-5 for 74 yards and a touchdown on the drive, while Smith caught three passes for 65 yards and the score.
The Steelers put together extended drives on their next two possessions, but neither resulted in points. On the first one, they reached the Ravens’ 37 but had to punt. On the next one, they advanced to the Ravens’ 32, giving Shaun Suisham a try on a 50-yard attempt.
However, Suisham never got off a kick as he appeared to have timing issues with the snap and the hold. Instead, holder Mat McBriar kept the ball and he was tackled for a 12-yard loss by Jeromy Miles.
Given the ball at their own 44, the Ravens capitalized on the good field position but they needed a big penalty on the Steelers’ Taylor to do it. Taylor was flagged for interfering with Smith, giving the Ravens the ball at the 27. The Ravens’ drive ultimately stalled but Tucker kicked a 43-yard field goal to give the home team a 10-0 lead.