For all that prevented the Steelers from sweeping the Ravens for the first time since 2008 -- the early play-calling was as mystifying as it was conservative and there were assorted special-teams blunders -- they had the home team right where they wanted it after Ben Roethlisberger calmly flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery on fourth down.
The Steelers called the same exact play on the two-point conversion that would have tied a game. Roethlisberger went to the other side of the field this time, noting that that Chykie Brown had just entered the game at cornerback for the injured Jimmy Smith and had man coverage on Emmanuel Sanders.
Roethlisberger threw a quick, back-shoulder pass to Sanders, and the ball sailed through the hands of the player who fashions himself as a No. 1 receiver.
A lame onside kick attempt by Shaun Suisham sealed the Steelers' seventh loss in 12 games, and the defeat means Pittsburgh has to win its final four games just to give itself a chance of making the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team.
“I don't expect any quit,” a resolute Roethlisberger said after almost pulling off one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. “We haven't quit to this point. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to fight my butt off all the way to the end.”
The Steelers did just that after falling behind 13-0 and after injuries scrambled their offensive line more than usual. They also saw one of their players knocked out cold but were, oddly enough, the team penalized in the name of safety.
Le'Veon Bell, who had the best game of his promising career, appeared to score a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. It came after a frightening collision with Smith near the goal line that caused Bell's helmet to pop off just before he fell across the goal line. A prayer circle quickly formed as medical personnel tended to the concussed Bell, and by the time he had been helped to his feet a rule that is supposed to protect players had taken the touchdown off the scoreboard. Since plays are ruled dead the moment a runner's helmet comes off, the ball was placed at the 1-yard line following a booth review of Bell's score.
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The Steelers needed two more plays to score their third touchdown of the second half against a Ravens team that has one of the best red-zone defenses in the NFL. But they ultimately came up a play short in yet another Steelers-Ravens game that was was tighter than a shrunken turtleneck.
One thing that bodes well for the Steelers staying together and at least making a run at 9-7 is how quickly players were to accept blame for the loss.
“It's my fault that we lost,” Sanders said. “It's something I've got to deal with, but I'm not going to let it hold me down. Redemption Sunday is coming up.”
Sanders acknowledged that Brown did a good job of shielding the ball from his line of vision on the two-point conversion, but added, “That's no excuse. I consider myself a big-time player. I've got to come up with those plays.”
Troy Polamalu said the Steelers' defense didn't make enough plays even though it kept the Ravens out of the end zone after Baltimore's first possession of the game.
“Their defense played better than ours,” the Pro Bowl strong safety said. “That's what won them the game.”
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, said he could have done more to help he Steelers win even though he played brilliantly in leading the Steelers back from double-digit deficits twice in the second half.
Roethlisberger completed 28 of 44 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, and he had the Ravens' defense on its heels by the end of the game.
Had the Steelers attacked more in the first half than they did in the final two quarters they may have never needed Sanders to make what would have been a tough catch to send the game into overtime.
But an insipid offensive game plan made it look like the Steelers were playing not to lose when they had every reason in the world to do whatever it took to win.
The Steeler managed just 98 yards on total offense in the first half, and they didn't score before halftime for the first time this season. The Steelers went with a no-huddle attack almost exclusively in the second half.
“Maybe we should have done it earlier and maybe I should have voiced that more, so I'll take that [blame] myself as well,” Roethlisberger said.
Such selflessness in defeat isn't easy to muster, especially given all that was on the line and all of the good the Steelers did only to wind up with a loss.
As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “I appreciate the effort of the guys, but we didn't come down here with effort in mind. We came here to win.”
That's what made Roethlisberger and Sanders such a compelling sight as the latter walked to his locker after the loss that the Steelers may not be able to overcome. Roethlisberger pulled Sanders close and talked to him.
"That's for us," Roethlisberger later said of the conversation. "In general [it was], 'Keep your head up.'"