Playoff football is always the best kind of football. “Because there is no tomorrow,” as Carl Weathers, otherwise known as Apollo Creed in the movie Rocky III, once uttered. The finality of a season-long ordeal of blood, sweat and tears culminating in a heavyweight matchup against your greatest nemesis, AFC North division rival Baltimore Ravens, in a “one and done” gladiatorial atmosphere, makes this a must see game. Oh, it was indeed.
* At the end of the pregame warmups, Terence Garvin and William Gay got into some sort of dance-off just before they left the field. I gotta tell you that if Dancing with the Stars is looking for someone to compete, I’m pulling for Garvin. He hit some moves that would've left me with a dislocated Lumbago, and yes folks there really is such a thing as a dislocated Lumbago.
* None other than Jerome Bettis, the Raven-slayer himself, was invited ringside to lead the Terrible Towel wave pre-kickoff. The thunderous towel wave led by Bussie hit big numbers on the Richter scale and you might have thought this in and of itself could lift the Steelers to victory, such was the raw emotion on the sidelines. For sure, Steelers Nation showed up and did its part.
* One of the greatest Steelers-Ravens stories I’ve ever heard involved Jerome and the great Hines Ward in a game nearly a decade ago. After the Steelers had built a substantial lead in the second half, Ward was blocking a Ravens CB on yet another thunderous Bettis run designed to seal the game. The cornerback said to Hines, “Ease up, I’m in no hurry to get over there and get in front of Bussie!”
* On the Ravens' first series, the Steelers had the (in Cope-speak) “Baltimore Birdies,” backed up in the south end zone. On second-and-10, Steve McLendon channeled his inner Akebono (the first non-Japanese Yokozuna, or sumo grand champion) and literally threw Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah into Joe Flacco’s legs, knocking both down and setting the Ravens back five yards. That was a sheer display of strength. Big Steve looks strong and I’m thinking Mojo is with the Steelers tonight.
* One play later and it’s another impressive display of strength. On third down James Harrison got his bull rush on in a big way and I had been licking my chops all week long for this because the Ravens had to move their rookie RT, James Hurst to LT. Hurst is a 6-5, 308-pound waistbender who, I believed couldn’t stand up to James’ bull rush. And he didn’t, at least on this rush. James put Hurst on skates and overpowered him so fast he over ran Flacco. Job number one when you rush outside is to keep leverage on the up-field shoulder of the QB, preventing him from flushing out of the pocket to the outside. You want to make him step up. But James steamrolled Hurst, who looked like a marionette puppet at this point, and Flacco took the opportunity to hustle to the sidelines, though short of the first down stick. Stephon Tuitt chased him out of bounds. Deebo was so chapped at himself after chasing Flacco to the sidelines he pounded the Heinz field turf in frustration.
* Still in the first quarter, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and there was that guy again. Yep, Elvis Dumervil hadn’t left the building. He was definitely in-house. Dumervil set up Marcus Gilbert on the upfield pass rush by adding a hesitation hop, skip and trap to his repertoire of moves. Elvis used that hesitation step long enough to throw off the timing of Marcus’ punch, and Marcus, because of the hesitation step, got head-heavy and dropped his head and hands to counter his forward lean. Dumervil took advantage of that heart-beat long off-balancing to trap (knock down) Gilbert’s hands to a quick outside swim and sack of Roethlisberger. Head up, Marcus, I kept mumbling to myself, head up.
* I tend to get stuck on certain matchups and Elvis-Marcus was a Jurassic Park Meateater Matchup extraordinaire that I had a hard time taking my eyes off from groundhog level. So, later on Elvis tried almost the exact same trap and Marcus okie-doked Elvis by pulling his hands back and stepping quickly backward to do the reverse of what Elvis had done to him earlier. Elvis was caught head forward and stumbling. As soon as Elvis was in that vulnerable head-forward position, Marcus gave Elvis a “Melvin,” by pulling him down by the jersey on the guy’s back and bench pressing him to a face-plant into the ground. Melvin’s occur in other sports besides football. Like hockey. In a hockey fight when a guy pulls the opponents jersey over his head while pummeling him, it’s called a Melvin. You get the idea.
* The first Ravens' drive of the third quarter, Torrey Smith ripped off a go-route against Antwon Blake, the diminutive in stature but highly and hotly competitive CB. The ref threw a flag, dropped a hat, and everything, it seemed, he was capable of throwing on what appeared to be multiple fouls on Blake. Now, Flacco has made a living off throwing deep passes and letting the refs complete the pass by calling pass interference. Apparently, Blake was getting called, but I flashed back to training camp for a moment when I watched a less-skilled but still as competitive Blake get called for multiple fouls by the practice ref. A very patient Dick LeBeau took Blake aside to coach him up. Antwon was covering guys in camp like he blocked the gunners covering punts, all fists and elbows. But Antwon has gotten so much better, and though he’s biting the bullet on this one, I love this guy and what he brings to the battle. He’s all heart, and then some.
* Baltimore has just gone up 23-15 over the Steelers with 8:47 left. The hogs are rallying in the hog-pen where they stand right before the kickoff. The daubers of the fellas are down a little, but as I stood by them (I am a creature of habit), Mike Munchak came over and said some words with a smile that only a Been-there-done-that kind of Hall of Famer could offer at this time. That’s what you love about this guy, and what he’s done with this unit. Yeah, things haven’t gone quite the way he would've liked but he’s there with his guys giving away whatever of himself he can to his group in the toughest of circumstances. Munch is trending towards the revered echelons of coaches such as Lebeau, someone who was a Hall of Fame player, coach and person.
* After Terrell Suggs intercepted Big Ben in the fourth quarter, the replay official challenged the ruling on the field. While the ref was under the hood, the atmosphere on the sidelines seemed very somber. After the ruling on the field was upheld, Ben stood by himself off to the side of the bench area towards the sidelines and it wasn’t hard to feel a little pain alongside him.
* After the Ravens converted Suggs' interception into six points, the Steelers started a drive. Antonio Brown was called for an offensive facemask after gaining four yards on a crossing route. Really? I thought to myself, really? The officials let Lardarius Webb run up the backside and grab Martavis Bryant on the shoulder pad for a no-call; Josh Harris almost gets Linda Blair’ed as in the Exorcist on a facemask by Suggs that they didn’t call; Blake gets a 2-for-1 pass interference call against him, and Mike Mitchell gets a helmet-to-helmet flag that wasn’t nearly as egregious as a hit on Heath Miller later in the game; not to mention Daryl Smith’s ... aaah ... I know better. It’s all spilt milk.
* Grumbling just felt good at that point.
* The stunned look on the faces of the players as the clock wound down matched the stunned expressions of disbelief of the fans as the players made their way off the field toward the locker room. The cavernous stairway climb back up the stairs toward the locker room seemed longer than usual and the normally joyous noises of victory accompanying the players were silenced on this night.
* Perhaps the most poignant moment of the postgame walk that was captured in a picture was Brett Keisel exiting the Heinz Field surface while tipping his cap to ever-faithful Steelers Nation. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Brett tipping his cap was an autobiography in a still moment.
* I would like to thank the many wonderful folks who took the time to read this most humbly offered column of thoughts, ideas and observations gathered throughout this past 2014 season. I also would like to thank Jim Wexell for giving me yet another opportunity to connect with Steelers fans near and afar. May God bless and prosper you all throughout the offseason.