Ravens hit wall at end against Steelers

BALTIMORE -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh shook his head in disbelief and disgust on the sideline, incredulous at what had just transpired while spitting out words as he sought a rational explanation from officials following Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes' controversial game-winning touchdown.

"Obviously it was a disappointing loss, in some ways heartbreaking," Harbaugh said following the Ravens' 13-9 loss to the Steelers on Sunday night that crowned Pittsburgh as AFC North division champions for the second year in a row "We wanted to do a lot of things that we didn't get done. We came up short. They got it done. They're the division champs. Now, it's our task to make the playoffs."

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs acknowledged that he would have a restless night, losing sleep over another debatable ending that damaged the Ravens' playoff outlook.

And middle linebacker Ray Lewis took no comfort from the Ravens' generally sterling performance against their hated rivals who won for the first time in Baltimore since 2002.

Not after hearing referee Walt Coleman announce following an instant-replay review that Holmes got both feet inside the end zone with control of the football for the game-winning, four-yard touchdown catch with 43 seconds remaining. Overruling the original decision before 71,502 at M&T Bank Stadium allowed Pittsburgh to cap a decisive 92-yard drive engineered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's clutch passing.

This setback means that the Ravens (9-5) must travel the wild-card route to make the playoffs. Due to tiebreaker edges built on a 7-4 AFC record, they currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot, the second wild-card berth, over the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots with two games remaining in the regular season. If the Ravens win their final two games, they will definitely make the playoffs.

The deciding play was reviewed because it initially didn't appear that the football broke the plane of the goal line as Holmes tapped both cleats inside the end zone and fell forward while holding the ball.

"We lost the game, that's the bottom line, there aren't any freakin' excuses," Lewis fumed. "A million times if you play it, of course, he didn't get in, but they called it the way they called it. That didn't win or lose the game for us."

According to page 776 of the NFL fact book rules digest: "A player with the ball in his possession scores a touchdown when the ball is on, above or over the goal line."

That's where the Ravens differed greatly from the officials.

"It didn't look to me like the ball broke the plane, that's what I saw," Harbaugh said. "He didn't give me an explanation. It's my understanding that the ball has to cross the plane. We'll be looking forward to hearing if that's a fact. I asked for an explanation, but no one was explaining too much at that point in time."

Despite the Ravens' protests, Coleman was adamant that his crew got the call correct after head linesman Paul Weidner initially signaled Holmes as not scoring a touchdown. That decision drew affirmation later via telephone from NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira.

"He had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line," Coleman told a pool reporter. "Yeah, the ball was breaking the plane. When he gained control of the ball, the ball was breaking the plane and then he fell into the field of play. But to have a touchdown, all you have to have is a catch, which is the two feet down, possession and control of the ball breaking the plane."

Regardless of the call, the fact remains that the Steelers (11-3) drove the football nearly the length of the field against the NFL's second-ranked defense with the game on the line.

In 12 plays, Roethlisberger manufactured an epic drive at the end as he completed 7 of 11 passes for 89 yards on the game-winning march.

"All game they didn't make plays," Lewis said. "One drive they did."

Roethlisberger scrambled to his left, then reversed field back toward his right to find Holmes over the middle for a touchdown in front of free safety Ed Reed. He also connected with Nate Washington and Hines Ward for 24 and 10 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the Ravens' 4-yard line.

"This was your typical Ravens-Steelers football game," Roethlisberger said. "I've got cuts and bruises as do other guys in our locker room, and I'm sure they do. It was physical, low-scoring, just like everyone thought it was going to be."

After two incompletions, Roethlisberger hit Holmes to put it away following the instant-replay review. During that drive, he peppered the Ravens' secondary with cornerback Fabian Washington sidelined with a hamstring injury.

"You got to ask yourself, 'Why put the ball in the officials' hands?'" Suggs said. "We shouldn't have put them in position to make the call. We had been dominating all game and then they made a couple plays. We had our backs against the wall. I'm going to have a hard time sleeping tonight. But I'll get over it in the morning and get ready for Dallas.

"We played good, but you got to play great against the Steelers. It was the biggest game of my career. This is the first time I ever lost to them in Baltimore. I thought it would be another day at the office for us, but it didn't turn out that way."

In a defensive duel between the league's two top defenses, Pittsburgh didn't allow a touchdown and held the Ravens to a season-low 202 yards of total offense.

The Steelers haven't allowed 300 yards in 14 consecutive games, tying the 1973 Los Angeles Rams for the longest streak to start a season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Afterward, the Steelers bellowed in their locker room: "We're still the No. 1 defense! We showed you boys how to play defense!"

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco had one of his worst games of the season at the most inopportune time. He completed just 11 of 28 passes for 115 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 22.2 passer rating. Driving down the field in the fourth quarter prior to the Steelers' final drive, Flacco was sacked at the Steelers' 28-yard line on third down by linebacker Lawrence Timmons when he burst past running back Willis McGahee on a flubbed block. McGahee recovered the fumble, but it forced the Ravens to punt it back to the Steelers.

And Roethlisberger took full advantage of the opportunity.

"I knew somebody was coming up that way, I was sliding to my left and wanted to get rid of the ball," Flacco said. "They did a good job and we would like to do a better job. We'll be fine."

Added Harbaugh: "They got a big sack when they had to at the end of the game, then took the ball down the field and scored. That's the way they've won games."

Especially in the red zone where the Ravens failed to convert on all three opportunities and had to settle for kicker Matt Stover connecting on field goals from 28, 26 and 28 yards to stake Baltimore to a 9-6 lead heading into the Steelers' final drive.

"We killed ourselves," said fullback Le'Ron McClain, who led the Ravens with 87 rushing yards on 23 carries. "We had them on the ropes. We couldn't knock them out."

It was the Steelers' second consecutive comeback victory following last week's dramatic 20-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Ravens' next opponent.

"We make the plays when they count," Holmes said.

The Ravens built a 9-3 lead in the third quarter following Holmes fumbling on a hit by cornerback Samari Rolle that was returned by Reed to the Steelers' 16-yard line to set up Stover's last field goal.

Then, Holmes muffed a punt that the Steelers' Keyaron Fox returned 18 yards to the Ravens' 33-yard line. A subsequent Roethlisberger fumble caused on a Suggs sack was recovered by defensive lineman Brandon McKinney early in the fourth quarter.

However, the Ravens' offense went three-and-out again.

Now, they have to deal with the bitterness of being swept by the Steelers by a total of seven points this year.

"What are you going to do? Sit around here and cry about it all day?" defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "It's tough, but we've got to regroup. What I like about our guys is we're so resilient. We'll bounce back and go to work."

The Ravens will have to get over this disappointment in a hurry as they prepare to play the Cowboys on Saturday night in the final regular-season game at Texas Stadium. The Ravens conclude the season at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"We're not losing no more games," McClain said. "We fought and we came up short, but we're going to see the Steelers again."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


By Aaron Wilson

Quarterback: D-minus

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was generally erratic against a strong defense, struggling with his accuracy as he completed just 11 of 28 passes for 115 yards and threw two interceptions to post a putrid 22.9 quarterback rating. Flacco was wild on too many throws, sailing his passes.

Running back: B-minus

Against the NFL's top-ranked defense, big fullback Le'Ron McClain grinded out 87 hard-fought yards on 23 carries in brutish fashion. Tailback Willis McGahee didn't show up again. He was unproductive running the ball with 18 yards on six carries, dropped a couple of catchable passes and his breakdown in pass protection led to a Joe Flacco fumble. Rookie Ray Rice's shifty presence was definitely missed.

Receiver: C-minus

It's hard to ascertain whether the lack of receptions is attributable to Joe Flacco or the receivers not gaining much separation against the league's top-ranked pass defense. Regardless, there was little passing game to speak of against the Steelers' opportunistic secondary. The Ravens had just 11 catches for 115 yards.

Offensive line: B-minus

After allowing five sacks in the first meeting, the Ravens did a solid job of stonewalling Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison. Joe Flacco was rarely under much duress. Plus, there was just enough room created at the line of scrimmage for Le'Ron McClain to barrel through.

Defensive line: B-plus

Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce, Justin Bannan and Marques Douglas consistently pressured Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked three times. And they limited the Steelers to 3.4 yards per carry for 91 rushing yards on 27 attempts with a long run of 10 yards.

Linebacker: B-plus

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis registered seven tackles, one sack, one quarterback hit and one tackle for a loss, but missed a few tackles. Inside linebacker Bart Scott had eight tackles, one for a loss. Terrell Suggs had one sack, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble.

Secondary: B-minus

They covered well throughout the game except on the decisive game-winning drive when breakdowns in coverage and Ben Roethlisberger's passing prowess put the Ravens away and won the Steelers their second consecutive AFC North crown. When Fabian Washington injured his hamstring, the pass coverage went backwards.

Special teams: B

Jim Leonhard had a 46-yard punt return. Yamon Figurs averaged 26 yards per kickoff return with a long return of 39 yards. Matt Stover booted field goals from 28, 26 and 28 yards. And the kickoff and punt coverage was solid.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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