Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers leaps into the end zone in front of Eric Weddle #32 of the Baltimore Ravens for a 7 yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter during the game at Heinz Field on December 25, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.(Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
A whole lot of credibility was on the line when Baltimore held a 20-10 lead over the Steelers early in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field Sunday.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had gifted the Ravens 10 points with two interceptions.
Receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell were less than 15 minutes away from further cementing their reputations as great players on teams that don’t win enough. If you’re not the solution, you become part of that problem.
Coach Mike Tomlin, freshly clowned as a “cheerleader” by ex-Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw, was about to see his resume stretch to six straight seasons of mostly underachieving, despite a plethora of weaponry. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was deservedly going to get splattered with some of that.
But the aforementioned weaponry suddenly executed like it hadn’t all season.
The Steelers were suddenly AFC North champions in a year where that really needed to happen.
Had the Steelers lost, the stink would have understandably hit the fan. Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell have been on the Steelers at the same time, amid much hoopla, since 2013. But before Monday, the result had been bupkus: Just one division title and only one win in a playoff game (that was gifted by Cincinnati last season).
Haley’s game plan fooled the opposition some days. It fooled himself on others. Haley milked stats, but not enough victories.
But in Sunday’s fourth quarter, the Steelers’ gang of three coalesced with such ferocity that the Ravens never really had a chance, especially when Styx’s “Renegade” was played not once, but twice. The jig is up, the news is out…
Three drives, 21 points. When the Ravens responded to the first two Steelers scores with seven points of their own, Roethlisberger and Co. didn’t flinch. Ten plays, 75 yards, 69 seconds. Brown posts the winning score by reaching the ball across the goal line from amidst a crowd of Ravens with nine seconds left.
Sure, the ball could have been knocked loose. If Brown’s lunge fails, time might run out before the Steelers can run (or kick) another play.
No matter. Big players make big plays, and Brown has never made bigger.
In the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger was 14 for 17 (including two spikes) for 164 yards and two touchdowns. He was clinical, almost flawless. Brown had five catches for 67 yards and a score. Bell got two touchdowns.
It’s all very praiseworthy, to say nothing of timely. But it’s also what players of that ability and pay grade are supposed to do. Roethlisberger has an abundance of such moments. Brown and Bell badly needed theirs.
Tomlin needed Sunday, too. Bradshaw’s criticism resonated. Since losing Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the Steelers haven’t done nearly as well as high expectations dictated. Does that make Tomlin a “cheerleader,” like Bradshaw said?
Uh, it might. But results are what matter. They don’t ask how, they ask how many. Up ‘til Sunday, Tomlin’s recent answer was, “Not enough.”
Now, the Steelers are seeded third in the American Football Conference. Winning a wild-card game at home against Miami is no lock given the Dolphins’ 30-15 win over the Steelers on Oct. 16. But Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill is recovering from a sprained knee. Oakland QB Derek Carr is out for the season with a broken leg. The Steelers are lined up to visit the Raiders in the divisional round.
The Steelers lost four straight. Now they’ve won six straight. Will the real Pittsburgh Steelers please stand up?
Perhaps, in yesterday’s fourth quarter, they did.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).