By Jason Keidel
If you wonder why the NFL is our biggest, richest, and most essential sport, take a gander at this past weekend.
It's Week 16, just seven days before the end of the regular season, and all but two of the games carried serious playoff pertinence. (The exceptions were Cleveland vs San Diego and Los Angeles vs San Francisco.)
And, starting with the Giants-Eagles on Thursday night, Christmas weekend stuffed a slew of division rivals and postseason jousting under our trees.
And it was most fitting that the best game of the weekend came on Christmas Day, when the Baltimore Ravens crashed into the Pittsburgh Steelers, at Heinz Field. While Baltimore had a recent series edge (5-2 over the last seven meetings), nearly every game, no matter the state or status of either team, is usually decided by a field goal or less and always a touchdown or less.
As if these teams needed incentive to pummel each other, there was more than normal. The winner would bag the top-spot in the AFC North. Though the Steelers (10-5) entered the game with a one-game lead on the Ravens (8-7), a Baltimore win would have all but secured the division, with two victories over the Steelers serving as supreme tiebreaker.
So it should shock no one that Sunday's game belonged under the tree, over the Menorah, and on the Yule Log. (Or splashed across the sprawling screen in Times Square.) A game that had more hits and momentum shifts than Tyson-Holyfield, the Steelers seemed to take a secure, 24-20 lead with 7:16 left in the game.
Unless, of course, you've watched and winced over these games for a decade.
Baltimore stormed back, muscling ahead, 27-24, on an absurd ten-yard TD run by a constellation of consonants named Kyle Juszczyk, who ran like a rhino over the Steelers defenders. It seems Mr. Juszcyk is a Harvard man, and it likely takes an Ivy League tongue to pronounce his name. But the language of this bloody rivalry is universal -- pain and punishment and playoff spots to be won.
Then, with 1:18 left, Big Ben got the ball at Pittsburgh's 25-yard-line. He needed about 50 yards to set up a game-tying field goal, but there was a sense among the team, media, and masses that the Steelers had to slam the gate on this game. With all the brutality and attrition and litany of injuries on Pittsburgh's sideline, they didn't have a fifth quarter in them. So they marched methodically down the field, using Big Ben's arm and field awareness, firing a slew of short passes until they nudged the ball deep into Baltimore territory.
With just 13 seconds left in the game, Roethlisberger took the snap and scanned the field. With zero timeouts left, he knew a running play would not work, as the final seconds would bleed off before he could spike the ball and set up for the game-tying FG. Two cracks at the end zone would work. If the first pass is incomplete, you can either try one more or rush in the special teams.
But Big Ben flung the ball to Antonio Brown at the two-yard-line. As soon as the ball slapped against his chest, a gaggle of Ravens jumped him, shoving him away from the end zone. As only the great ones do, Brown somehow kept his ground, unfurled his right arm, and flashed the ball over the goal line. There were a few seconds left, and the formality of the kickoff, but the game was won, 31-27. If Brown doesn't find the talent and temerity to inch the pigskin over the goal line, the Steelers lose the game, and the season.
Even by the stellar standards these teams set over the epoch, this was a glittering finish.
Rivalries are what make pro football - among many sports - so interesting and intense. Nothing drains the adrenal gland like Borg/McEnroe or Larry/Magic or Michigan/Ohio State. Ask a Bostonian how he feels about the Yankees, or the reverse.
Generally, a great NFL feud has to be traced back to black & white, to old NFL Films and the Philadelphia Philharmonic, with John Facenda's booming baritone musing over autumn winds and pirates. Footage of Lombardi and Halas stalking the sideline, whispers of white breath puffing from their mouths on the Frozen Tundra or a frigid Soldier Field.
But the Ravens were hatched in 1996. Then a single draft pick changed the name, game, and identity of the club forever. Ray Lewis. Then came Ed Reed and the rest, making the black & gold feel black & blue for 20 years. And Baltimore replaced the Browns and Bengals (and the Oilers, if you recall) as Pittsburgh's eternal tormentors.
A bunch of bruising games played out across your flatscreen over the weekend. The Steelers weren't the only team tested and tormented and triumphant. It only felt that way, Which is why theirs may be the best rivalry in the nation, and why the NFL is the best sport on the planet.
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