Typically in this space each week, I give a synopsis of what I feel will be the key elements to the upcoming game and make a pick.
But, given the circumstances, that’s not really appropriate this week.
Pittsburgh’s game against Cleveland is meaningless in that the Steelers have already wrapped up the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs and can’t improve on that lot.
But No. 3 isn’t a bad spot in ths year’s postseason.
And that is a good thing for Mike Tomlin’s legacy.
Tomlin’s coaching prowess has been in question this week after Terry Bradshaw’s comments last week on a national TV show in which he said Tomlin is a “cheerleader guy,” but not a great football coach.
Tomlin agreed with the “great” coach tag but took offense at just being a “cheerleader guy,” saying that was inappropriate.
Tomlin’s critics point out he has just one playoff win in the past five seasons. That’s fair. But there also are some circumstances they fail to acknowledge surrounding that record.
Last year, the Steelers went into the postseason without their top two running backs, Pro Bowl center and starting left tackle. They then lost Antonio Brown at the end of their win in Cincinnati, a game in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a shoulder injury.
Think all of that might have caught up with them the following week in Denver?
The year before, the Steelers lost running back Le’Veon Bell - the team’s MVP that year - six days before hosting the Baltimore Ravens in a playoff game. Because of the release of LeGarrette Blount at midseason, they had no suitable backup.
Blame Tomlin for that all you want, but those are the reality of the situations.
All of that said, there are no such excuses heading into this year’s postseason.
The Steelers will head into postseason play this year as healthy as they have been in quite some time in January. And that’s why Tomlin’s legacy is on the line in this postseason.
Given the state of quarterbacking in the AFC where Miami, Houston and Oakland will be playing with backup quarterbacks because of injury or plain ineffectiveness, the Steelers head into this postseason with what could be a tailor-made path to the AFC title game.
If both Kansas City and Miami win on Sunday and Oakland finds a way to get the job done in offense-less Denver, the Steelers will host Miami next weekend, while Kansas City would head to Houston.
The Steelers and Chiefs should both win those games.
That would then send the Steelers to face the Matt McGloin-led Raiders in Oakland and Kansas City to New England in the Divisional Round.
We’ve seen the Steelers lose some inexplicable games in Oakland, and that will be where Tomlin’s legacy will be on the line.
A win would put the Steelers in the AFC Championship. And before we assume that it would be in New England, realize that the Chiefs went into Foxborough two years ago and thumped the Patriots, 41-14. In last year’s playoffs, New England won, 27-20 - with Rob Gronkowski, who had seven catches for 83 yards and two scores in that game.
It’s no given the Patriots, who are 6-2 at home this season, will beat the Chiefs or the Steelers, for that matter.
Regardless of what happens, Tomlin needs to get this team to the AFC Championship, at the very least, to quiet his critics.
And things set up favorably for that to happen.
As for this week’s game, the Steelers are 6-point favorites with Landry Jones at quarterback. He’ll be playing with a skeleton crew, but the Browns have been playing like that all season.
PITTSBURGH -- Le’Veon Bell’s true value to the Steelers can’t be measured in a mere team award. Sure, being voted the Steelers’ most valuable player is a nice honor for Bell, who won by a vote of his teammates for the second time in three years on Wednesday.
But some of his teammates are thinking bigger -- like maybe, MVP of the NFL.
Perhaps a more immediate measure of the star running back’s value to his team will be seen Sunday when the Steelers host the Cleveland Browns and Bell, almost assuredly, won’t even play. The Steelers value Bell so much they don’t want to risk losing him again to injury in Sunday’s meaningless regular-season finale against the gad-awful Browns.
In his place, Fitzgerald Toussaint -- the Maytag repairman of backup running backs behind Bell and veteran DeAngelo Williams -- will likely pad on to his 11 carries this season. Hey, with Bell averaging 26.8 carries per game during the Steelers’ current six-game winning streak, Toussaint will take any work he can.
“Working behind two of the best in the league is kind of an eye opener for me,” Toussaint said of Bell and Williams. “Just sit back and take notes. Those guys really set the standard. I just go out there and follow their lead.”
Despite missing the first three games of the season serving a league suspension, Bell leads all but one other running back in the NFL in two major statistical categories. Dallas’ super rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads Bell in both total rushing yards (1,631 to 1,268) and yards per game (108.7 to 105.7).
Of course, the rushing numbers only tell part of Bell’s story. Bell also has 75 receptions for 616 yards, compared to 32 for 363 for Elliott.
“He’s real versatile,” Toussaint said. “Not a lot of backs in the league can do that. He gives you the whole nine. He gives his all and doesn’t come out of the game. He has tremendous heart. He’s special.”
That’s why, no offense to Elliott or Pittsburgh’s team award, Bell’s teammates believe he should also be in consideration for league MVP.
“He should definitely be in that conversation,” said guard Ramon Foster. “You can’t have a guy who’s done what he’s done so far and not be in the conversation, but in this league they go with who’s hot.”
According to Las Vegas oddsmaker Bovada, Elliott is currently the consensus favorite at 2/1 odds followed by four quarterbacks: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, and then Bell at a distant 25/1. Since the NFL merger in 1970, the MVP award has been almost the exclusive property of quarterbacks. Only 14 running backs have ever won, the last being Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson when he became the sixth player to rush for over 2,000 yards. Only one Steeler -- quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1978 -- has ever won.
Not that awards are weighing heavily on Bell’s mind.
“I think Zeke has had a great season,” Bell said. “Watching him, he’s a young guy, he runs hard. You have to give that guy a lot of credit. He put a lot of his team’s yards on his back, and he’s done great things. I think myself, I think I have done a little bit of the same.
“MVP, the whole award thing, it is what it is. I think running backs can only do so much. Quarterbacks usually win it, which is deserved. I mean, obviously, the quarterback does a lot for a football team and you need a good quarterback for your team to be good. But we’ll see what happens with the MVP thing. I don’t care if I win it or not. I want to win the Super Bowl -- that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
No matter who wins, the fact that two running backs even have a shot at MVP in what’s become a quarterback-driven league is noteworthy in itself, according to Toussaint.
“It’s a shout-out to those guys,” Toussaint said. “They’re working hard and showing guys it can be done at the running back position. Those guys work hard for it, especially Le’Veon. He deserves that. Hopefully he gets that.”
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury blocks a shot in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. The Penguins won 3-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH -- Penguins forward Carl Hagelin hopes a recent uptick in offensive production can lead to a surge in the second half of the season.
Hagelin scored with 4:15 remaining and Pittsburgh rallied to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 on Wednesday night.
"It's good to see (Hagelin) score some goals," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He does so much for us in ways that's tough to quantify, but he certainly helps us win. Any time he helps us by scoring goals, it makes us more difficult to play against."
Hagelin got his fifth of the season and second in two games off a feed from Patric Hornqvist. That followed a tying goal from Chris Kunitz early in the period, his third of the season and first in 16 games.
Sidney Crosby scored his league-leading 26th goal in his 31st game and moved into a tie with Edmonton's Connor McDavid for the league scoring lead at 42 points. Crosby, who missed six games with a concussion at the start of the season, trailed McDavid by nine points when he made his first start Oct. 25 against Florida.
The Penguins have won three straight and four of five. They have points in 10 consecutive home games and are 11-1-2 in December.
Matt Murray started for Pittsburgh and stopped 25 of 27 shots before leaving with a lower-body injury. Sullivan didn't have an update on his condition. Marc-Andre Fleury replaced Murray for the start of the third period and made 19 saves for his 11th win.
"I thought Marc-Andre came in and did a terrific job and made some big saves in the third period," Sullivan said. "That's not easy to do when you're sitting on the bench, to have the focus he had to make those timely saves."
"You always want to win or at least get a point," Lindholm said. "We were kind of sloppy in the second and third period and they scored two goals."
Crosby scored in a season-high fifth straight game and has 11 goals this month. He has five goals and nine points during a six-game point streak. Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz had an assist and now has 18 points in his last 15 games.
Hagelin, who was acquired in a January trade from Anaheim, established career highs in the regular season and playoffs with Pittsburgh last season. He also combined with Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino to form the "HBK Line," which was key in helping Pittsburgh to a fourth Stanley Cup title in the spring.
Hagelin struggled through December this season with one goal and four points in 12 games before recently breaking out. Hagelin has five goals and 14 points in 37 games and hopes for more in the second half.
"I felt good all of December," Hagelin said. "I've been skating better and getting chances, but it's always nice to get some production too."
Both teams are dealing with injuries along the blue line.
Carolina's Justin Faulk is week-to-week after getting a lower-body injury during an overtime win against Boston on Dec. 23. Faulk, who started the season with seven points in 22 games, had four goals and nine points in his last eight. Ryan Murphy took Faulk's spot in the lineup alongside Ron Hainsey.
The Penguins were without three of their top defensemen on Wednesday.
Kris Letang has missed seven games with a lower-body injury, while Olli Maatta sat out his second straight game with an illness. Brian Dumoulin will miss four-to-six weeks after undergoing surgery for a broken jaw.
Trevor Daley was a surprise addition to the lineup on Wednesday after missing the previous five games with an upper-body injury.
Game notes Hagelin accidently kicked Hurricanes F -- and former Penguin -- Jordan Staal in the face with his skate late in the first period. Staal got stiches during the intermission and returned for the start of the second. ... Schultz is the first Penguins' defenseman to record 17 points in a month since Sergei Zubov in March 1996. ... The Penguins recalled D David Warsofsky from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but he was scratched. Tom Kuhnhackl missed his sixth game with a lower-body injury. ... Carolina scratched D Klas Dahlbeck and C Andrej Nestrasil.
Hurricanes: Host Chicago on Friday night.
Penguins: Continue a three-game homestand Saturday night against Montreal.
A shot by Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) gets by New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, bottom left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Crosby scored a goal for the fourth straight game and added two assists, Malkin had a goal and an assist in becoming the fourth Penguin to collect 800 points, and Schultz scored the go-ahead goal with 5.4 seconds left in the second period on a play set up Pittsburgh's big two in a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.
"I've said it all along, those guys drive this team and when they are playing the type of hockey they are playing right now they are inspiring," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Crosby and Malkin. "That's the word that comes to mind. Our top players right now are playing inspiring hockey. It starts with those two guys, but it does not end there."
Schultz is the unexpected player who has stepped up with fellow defenseman Kris Letang and Trevor Daley sidelined. The 26-year old now has seven goals and 15 assists this season, with six goals and 10 assists this month when Pittsburgh has posted a 10-1-2 mark.
"We're certainly encouraged by his play," Sullivan said. "He seems to be getting better with each game he plays. I think his confidence level is at an all-time high."
The go-ahead goal with the teams skating four on four was clear evidence of that. Crosby fed Malkin just into the Devils' blue line. The big forward dropped a pass to Schultz for a shot that beat Cory Schneider high to his stick side.
"It's good to have the confidence," said Schultz, who thought about going to the bench with 10 seconds left in the period. "I don't think I expected it to go in, goaltenders are always going to make saves, but I was lucky enough to find some room."
"Schultzie is hot now," Malkin said. "It's like every shot he is dangerous."
Marc-Andre Fleury had 21 saves as the Penguins beat the Devils for the second time in five nights, and the third time in three games this season. Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust added insurance goals in the third period.
PA Parenteau and Adam Henrique scored for the slumping Devils, who are 1-8-1 in their last 10. Schneider had 22 saves.
"Late goal in second, 3-2 and you would have thought the game was over," a frustrated Schneider said. "You would have thought it was 5-1 at that point ... just didn't see the urgency from everyone to really want to tie that game. We've got to take some pride in not giving up four or five a night, and we have to bear down and believe we can come back in these games."
The Penguins rallied from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 and killed off six of seven power plays to beat the Devils for only the third time (3-7) at the Prudential Center since 2012-13.
Crosby set up Malkin on a power play for his 15th goal, and 800th point of his career at 6:43 of the first period.
"It's a good number," Malkin said.
Henrique put the Devils ahead a little less than two minutes later with a shot into an open net on a power play after a shot deflected to him in the right circle.
Crosby scored his league-leading 25th goal to tie the game midway through the second period on a great effort by Conor Sheary. He beat Henrique skating down the left wing, got the rebound of his own shot and fed Crosby, whose goal streak matches his season high.
Hagelin scored on a breakaway early in the third period and Rust scored late into an empty net.
Taylor Hall had given the Devils the lead at 1:18, setting up Parenteau for a shot into an open net.
Game notes Crosby has 41 points in 30 games (25 goals, 16 assists). Malkin also has 41 points in 36 games (15-26). ... Devils D Yohann Auvitu was a healthy scratch after being recalled from Albany (AHL) Monday. ... Penguins RW Patric Hornqvist hit the post less than a minute before Parenteau opened the scoring. ... The loss was only the Devils' third at home in regulation this season (9-3-2). ... Pittsburgh is 13-0 when leading after two periods this year, and 52-0 over the past two years.
Penguins: Host Carolina on Thursday to open three-game homestand.
Antonio Brown has been deemed a diva for demanding the ball, a jerk for his touchdown twerk, soft for running out of bounds.
Now that Antonio pulled a Santonio against the Baltimore Ravens with a game-winning, 4-yard catch-and-stretch to clinch the AFC North, it's time to stop questioning his toughness.
Because Brown just scored one of the toughest touchdowns in Steelers history.
Brown didn't just beat cornerback Jerraud Powers on a slant but caught Ben Roethlisberger's bullet, absorbed hits from inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and strong safety Eric Weddle inside the 1-yard line and sprung up to stretch the ball over the goal line with 9 seconds left in a 31-27 victory Sunday.
“When you see a guy playing with passion the way he plays with it, that's never up for debate,” Steelers receiver Eli Rogers said. “Making the plays that he makes, the contested catches where he has to fight and show his will, those questions won't even come up. It's not really a question of his toughness. That's in his game. He's a tough player. That play should (stop criticism) because it was a physical play.”
Not just a physical play, but to Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell a “great play.”
“I don't think there's a lot of receivers willing to do that,” Bell said. “It looks easy when he does it, but that's really a difficult play.”
Brown's extra effort saved the Steelers but didn't stop the second-guessing of fans following the 31-27 victory: What if he hadn't scored and time ran out before the Steelers could spike the ball to stop the clock and set up for a tying field goal?
It's a risk Roethlisberger was willing to take.
“That's a great throw by Ben. He trusted me to come in there and not get stopped,” Brown said. “I knew I was going to take some contact. I knew, after that, I was going to be able to get the ball in.”
Ridiculed for running out of bounds at the Dallas 20 with no time left after a 44-yard catch in a 35-30 loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 13 at Heinz Field, Brown's effort even was questioned by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: “At the end of the game, I'd like to see us stay in bounds and fight and claw for every scratch, every yard, every blade of grass, any opportunity that we can have to win the game.”
He's no Hines Ward when it comes to hitting, but Brown fought and clawed for every scratch against the Ravens.
Brown scored, despite Weddle having a hand on his facemask — a penalty that wasn't called. How to explain a 5-foot-10, 181-pound receiver beating a 6-2, 241-pound linebacker? Mosley called it “just a matter of effort.”
“I hit him and he had the extra effort and reached out,” Mosley said. “He made the play, and I didn't on that one.”
Brown has invited some of his criticism, especially for the touchdown dances that drew fines and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. But when he scored the touchdown to beat the Ravens, one reminiscent of Santonio Holmes' AFC North-clinching catch in a 13-9 victory over the Ravens in 2008, Brown handed the ball to left guard Ramon Foster so he could spike it.
Call Brown a diva for demanding the ball — and his receptions have dropped from 129 in 2014 and 136 last season to 106 this season, when he drew double and triple teams — but he produced when called upon in the fourth quarter Sunday. Six of his 10 catches and 73 of his 96 yards (both game highs) came with the season on the line.
“I might not get the ball as much as I want to. I've just got to stay positive,” Brown said. “We've got a great quarterback who don't blink. I know as the game continues on, it's going to present opportunities. And they found a way to get me the ball.”
Lost amid the celebration of the Christmas Comeback was the game-winner was the 50th touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Brown, breaking the team tandem record set by Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann.
Brown also has eclipsed both 1,000 receiving yards and 100 receptions for the fourth consecutive season, and his 481 catches over that span is the most in NFL history.
Criticize him all you want. Call him what you will. But against the Ravens, Brown answered anyone who has questioned his willingness to win at all costs.
Now, he's a Super Bowl shy of a new label: The best wide receiver in Steelers history.
PITTSBURGH -- James Harrison isn't showing any signs of slowing down, even as a 38 year-old in the latter stretch of his 14th NFL season.
As seen in Sunday night's win over the Ravens, Harrison's age is really just a number at this point. With a playoff berth on the line, the veteran OLB led the Steelers with 11 tackles, nine of which were solo.
"With how he’s playing now, we don’t even know if he’s going to retire next year or not," Bud Dupree said. "The way he works and the way he carries himself with the things he does, he probably could play another three years if he really wanted to."
Harrison ranks sixth on the team with 53 tackles, albeit he was only averaging roughly 50 percent of the defensive snaps for the first half of the season while in a four-man rotation. That could have been a blessing in disguise. OLB coach Joey Porter did a good job of limiting Harrison's workload in September and October in order to get the best of him in November and December. He's first on the team with five sacks, and tied for second with two forced fumbles.
Harrison's 20 tackles in the last two games is tied for the most he's ever had over a two-game span, with the previous mark coming in 2008.
While playing alongside Dupree, Harrison has helped the 2015 first-round pick's development. Dupree has 17 tackles and 3.5 sacks in five games since his return from injured reserve as a key piece in the Steelers' front seven. Often, he's communicating with Harrison in between plays in regards to what's going on at the line of scrimmage.
"We’ll ask each other what we’re getting since we rush on both sides," Dupree said. "And just other things, like the run plays. It’s always good to know what he saw and what I saw, and communicate it to each other.
"He knows a lot more than I do. Just simple stuff. He can be looking at the line of scrimmage and already see that it’s a run, where I’m focused on just getting off the ball and beating my man. He slows it down. He sees the game a lot slower than me."
In a defense with five starters age 23 or younger, three of which are rookies, Harrison's veteran presence during the Steelers' upcoming playoff run can't be taken for granted.
"He keeps us grinding," Dupree said. "Sometimes we’ll be too hype or overexcited, and he’ll come out and say things like, 'We don’t need no pep rally.' He keeps us grounded and on the right track."
Eli Rogers didn't realize how impressive his 20-yard reception on the Steelers' game-winning drive against the Ravens was until he came in and watched it again Monday morning. Rogers, who said after the game that he knew wholeheartedly he would make the catch, was surprised when saw the film. "I didn’t feel like I really stretched out and looked the ball in and everything on the instant replay," he said. "But when it was live, I was just like ‘Oh yeah, it’s up, I got it.’” Rogers saw something else when he watched the film. The play was nearly identical to one that occurred Week 10 against the Cowboys. "The same catch I caught, I dropped it," said Rogers. "Same play, same type of catch. Just from then to now, you can see the growth." Rogers finished with four catches for 89 yards to aid Antonio Brown in the receiving game as Ladarius Green and Sammie Coates were both out due to injury.
In addition to Rogers, Cobi Hamilton made contributions on the final drive as well. Hamilton's 6-yard catch with :46 left gave the Steelers a short down-and-distance situation on third down. Ben Roethlisberger then connected with Jesse James twice before finding Brown for the game-winning touchdown. For someone who spent the first half of the year on the practice squad, Sunday night was a foreign feeling to Hamilton that he couldn't have expected at the season's beginning. "To tell you the truth, not being in that position before, you don’t really know how big a game it really is," he said. "People that have been around here obviously know, but for some of the guys who have been jumping on the wagon, it’s just fun to be a part of. You can tell the happiness and the emotion throughout the locker room after the win."
Stephon Tuitt was present at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex walking gingerly from the locker room into the trainers room. He did not speak formally to reporters, but did say in passing that he, "was feeling great." Tuitt missed Sunday's game against the Ravens with a knee sprain.
BY THE NUMBERS
6: The Steelers have won six consecutive regular season games for the first time since 2004.
"That’s been the story of our season; not to blink." -- RT Marcus Gilbert, on the Steelers' not panicking during Sunday night's win over the Ravens
Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger celebrate the game-winning touchdown in Sunday's 31-27 victory over the Ravens. (www.steelers.com)
We will remember this game as the Christmas Day Comeback, the one that won the AFC North.
Whether we reminisce on it the way Steelers fans do the Immaculate Reception, which occurred 44 years and two days earlier, remains to be seen.
But it's no stretch — Antonio Brown's or otherwise — to say that the Steelers' 31-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Heinz Field will go down as one of their most memorable.
And it's because Ben Roethlisberger forgets as easily as he remembers, showing the short-term memory required to put interceptions in the past and the long-term know-how to win games in the fourth quarter.
“I've been doing this a long time, and I've thrown a lot of interceptions and it's hard,” Roethlisberger said. “You feel like you let guys down. When you take the field, you have to take the field with a purpose.”
Despite a 10-point deficit and having thrown two interceptions, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to three fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
He was practically perfect in running the no-huddle, including throwing a do-or-die 4-yard pass to Brown with nine seconds remaining, with the division title and Steelers' playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
“He's a Hall of Famer, bro,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Hall of Famers don't flinch.”
That the Ravens did was not the result of an epic collapse, like the bone-headed Bengals.
The Ravens weren't just at the mercy of Roethlisberger. They were at his mercy while operating out of the no-huddle offense, slinging from the shotgun to the likes of Le'Veon Bell and Brown and, somewhat surprisingly, Jesse James and Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers, a seventh-round pick playing in his first NFL regular-season game.
Ayers marveled at Big Ben's poise and precision, saying the Steelers have “extreme confidence” in Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 17 passes — including two spikes to stop the clock — for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“When you've got 7 behind center, there's never a situation you have to worry about,” Ayers said. “We trusted in him and just followed his plan and let him lead us. There's never a situation too big for him.
“When he's under center, we have a chance of winning any game, no matter what the score is. I think he just lives for that moment. I've seen him make plays pretty much my whole life, since college and middle school. To just be in the moment with him is awesome.”
We watched in wonder as Big Ben did it again, taking the field with a purpose, trailing 20-10 with 14:18 remaining and the season on the line.
Roethlisberger hit James for 21 yards, then threw deep along the right sideline to Ayers to draw a pass-interference penalty on cornerback Tavon Young. On second-and-2 at the Ravens 7, Bell pushed off nose tackle Brandon Williams and bounced left for a 7-yard touchdown run to cut it to 20-17.
The next drive covered 90 yards on 10 plays, sparked by Bell's 23-yard run on first down and 13-yarder on a draw. Roethlisberger finally found his rhythm, connecting with Brown for back-to-back gains of 21 and 26 yards.
What happened next turned the tide in the Steelers' favor. On first-and-goal at the 7, Roethlisberger rolled right, dumping it to Bell. At the goal line, Bell was met head-on by Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley when left guard Ramon Foster plowed both into the end zone for 24-20 lead.
“There is nothing specific to point to,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They made great throws. They made catches. Ben got out of the pocket and made a couple plays. I think it was just playmaking. You have to come up with plays against him.”
Joe Flacco responded in kind, converting four third downs in leading the Ravens on a 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by fullback Kyle Juszczyk's 10-yard run for a 27-24 lead with 1:18 to play.
That's where Roethlisberger running the no-huddle was the difference. He has arguably two of the NFL's finest players at their position in Bell and Brown, but time was precious and the stakes were at an all-time high.
“It means everything in the world,” Bell said. “Not only the playmakers and the quarterback, but we've got a great offensive coordinator (Todd Haley), who's out there and putting us in that situation in practice all the time. The fact that we can overcome 10 or 13 points, it really doesn't matter because we understand that there's always enough time for us.”
So Big Ben found James for 3 yards, Brown for 8 and a first down. Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket to find James for 16 yards. He hit Ayers for a 9-yarder, then rolled right and threw to Rogers, who made a spectacular leaping catch at the Baltimore 19. After a spike to stop the clock with 41 seconds left, Roethlisberger hit Cobi Hamilton for a 6-yard gain and then James for 9 yards.
“Everyone expects Bell and Brown to make the plays,” Roethlisberger said, “but when other guys step up, it's huge.”
One more spike stopped the clock at 14 seconds. Roethlisberger warned his teammates that if the play failed, they had to hurry to the line of scrimmage to spike it and set up for a field goal. Instead, he went for broke. Roethlisberger looked left, and zipped it to Brown, who absorbed a hit by Mosley and strong safety Eric Weddle but had the presence of mind to stretch the ball across the goal line.
“It was nice that we got in at the end like that,” Pouncey said. “That's what championship teams do.”
On this Christmas Day, they followed a star to find a miracle.