By Mike Wise
Monday, January 19, 2009
PITTSBURGH As Willis McGahee lay motionless, as Ray Lewis and other players knelt to pray, as the cart with the stretcher motored out and a concerned hush fell over Heinz Field, nothing mattered anymore.
All the mano-a-mano buildup, the hyperbole centering on two violent teams competing for a Super Bowl berth, ceased. For a few frightening minutes, it was preempted by the thought that an NFL player might be paralyzed on the field of the AFC championship game.
Looking on as medical personnel surrounded the fallen player, the Baltimore Ravens weren't worried about losing the seminal game of their season as much as possibly losing a teammate -- McGahee, a victim of the same kind of pad-popping hit glorified by a league, its network partners and, yes, us -- the game-day-obsessed nation.
Steelers-Ravens represented the rugged best and unsightly worst of the NFL on Sunday night, and the play in the final minutes of a vicious game -- three players suffered concussions and no one left the field unscathed -- will further serve to polarize the masses.
If ever a parent worried for a child's safety in this sport, this was the game to confirm every fear. You see the replay of Ryan Clark lowering his shoulder and helmet at warp speed as he collides with McGahee, his body jarring violently, his neck sickeningly snapping back like a crash-test dummy, and you can almost hear thousands of parents across America: "That's it, you're not going to play. Soccer, baseball, basketball -- anything but football."
They're right behind the same people, of course, who exclaimed: "Great hit! That's how you put a hurt on somebody."
Pittsburgh and Baltimore played one of the most painful and menacing physical ordeals in NFL history, a vertebrae-crunching, brain-rattling, helmet-to-helmet affair that was billed as a conference championship game and nearly ended as an indictment on the these bruising, maim-the-other-team styles. Instead, the immediate news was positive: A team spokesman said McGahee is neurologically intact and that he would stay overnight in a Pittsburgh hospital.
"I started getting a little emotional when I saw him down there and the cart was coming out," began Ben Roethlisberger, before adding, "That's the nature of this rivalry."
Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the ruffians came all this way, to the crest of playing for it all, to discover a hideous truth:
Contrary to their own belief, they're not the most menacing, unmerciful, I-will-knock-you-out football team in the National Football League. That belongs to the guys who made the medics come on the field for their teammate who couldn't move.
Oh, Baltimore is brutally tough. No team weathers the physical and psychological punishment the Ravens did here Sunday night and manages to make the AFC championship a taut thriller in the final minutes.
But they don't bring pain like the Steelers; they don't hit, pulverize and, disturbingly, concuss an opponent with the same malice as these hard-core players from Allegheny County.
Two Ravens suffered concussions in the first half, including cornerback Corey Ivy, who absorbed the nastiest crack-back hit from wideout Limas Sweed. In fact, crack-back is too kind. He was a human missile zeroing in, hitting maximum speed upon impact, his helmet jarring every bone in Ivy's body.
Another Ravens defensive back went down and out -- Daren Stone was dropped on the first play of the game and was so shaken up he didn't return until the second half.
There has to be some real regret in Baltimore, coming this close with a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback and all the momentum imaginable after knocking out the top-seeded Titans in Tennessee last week.
Joe Flacco vs. Kurt Warner would have been the perfect historical comparison -- the rookie quarterback who no one gave much of a chance to start an NFL game this postseason, much less lead his team to a conference championship game. He had a slightly better pedigree than the former grocery boy who hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the St. Louis Rams nine years ago, but Flacco's ascent to the Super Bowl would have been just as unlikely as Warner's first full season in the NFL, as unlikely as Warner's renaissance at 37 years old.
But Pittsburgh again out-Baltimored the Ravens -- they beat up and knocked out a team featuring two future Hall of Famers, Lewis and Ed Reed, whose name was barely called next to the Steelers' Troy Polamalu.
It was one of the hardest-hitting games in league history, a contest Jack Lambert, Deacon Jones, Ronnie Lott and Dick Butkus would have loved to say they played in. Lawrence Taylor, Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke would have paid to see it in person.
Steelers-Ravens also took the sanctioned-violence quotient to a downright scary level, to the point of stretchers, concussions and a locker room full of players waiting for Willis McGahee to move his limbs and let them know he's okay.