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PITTSBURGH -- What if John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens win a conference championship, or, by chance, a Super Bowl? What will the celebration be like then?
Because Sunday night, after quarterback Joe Flacco led the Ravens back from the dead against Pittsburgh, after wide receiver Torrey Smith finally married his fingertips with the pigskin, you would have thought Baltimore had won a championship, not just a regular-season game in early November.
Sure, this was big. This was beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at their house.
But dousing the coach with Gatorade? And a postgame locker room celebration that was so loud you could hear the boisterous cheers beyond closed doors? And a jubilant collision between Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome that left Harbaugh's chin bloody? And an off-the-cuff Teddy Roosevelt riff from Harbaugh? For this?
|John Harbaugh and his team could be in the driver's seat during the AFC playoffs.|
Yes, for this.
This was more than 23-20, the final numbers on the scoreboard when the Ravens' dizzying, improbable, glorious and redemptive comeback against their archrivals was in the books. This was Baltimore 2, Pittsburgh 0, after the Ravens completed their first regular-season sweep of Pittsburgh since 2006.
This was better than 35-7, their season-opening win over Pittsburgh at home. This was validation, a win for men, by men, against men, the toughest and nastiest the National Football League has to offer.
And this very well could be even bigger two months from now, when the weather is colder and the stakes are higher. Three times Baltimore has played Pittsburgh in the playoffs. All three times the game was in Pittsburgh. All three times the Ravens lost.
A home playoff game against a team they know so well, where the margin of victory is typically so small because the teams are so evenly matched, well, that would be huge. That could be the difference. That could be everything.
There were phenomenally close, competitive, entertaining games on Sunday afternoon. There was the rematch of Super Bowl XLII between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, with the same, stunning result after a last-second touchdown pass from Eli Manning. There were the Green Bay Packers successfully remaining the only undefeated team in football with a win at the enigmatic San Diego Chargers.
There was a 99-yard punt return for a touchdown to give Arizona an overtime win against St. Louis, and there was Tim Tebow getting a win over Oakland, and the Miami Dolphins getting their long-overdue first win of the season.
But nothing was tougher, more satisfying or bigger than Baltimore over Pittsburgh.
"This Steelers-Ravens game is a game for men, all right," Harbaugh said afterward, the testosterone essentially dripping down his face. "It's a game for big men. You got to shine bright in this game if you want to win in this game, and nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game.
"I couldn't be more proud of our football team. I couldn't be more proud of our men, our players and our coaches for what they accomplished out there, for 60 minutes in a battle against a great football team, a great quarterback, a great defense. But our guys have what it takes, our coaches and our players to win a game like this, and I'm proud of them, man."
For much of the game, Baltimore did to Pittsburgh what the Steelers had done to New England a week earlier. The Ravens controlled the football. They converted on third down, keeping Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline, where he could not hurt them. Baltimore played hawkish defense and kept the Steelers out of the end zone -- at least until the fourth quarter, when everything started to unravel.
Trailing 16-6, Roethlisberger orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard Rashard Mendenhall run. On the Ravens next possession, James Harrison sacked Flacco, who lost the football. Six plays later, scrambling for his life on third-and-5, Roethlisberger threw a 25-yard dart to Mike Wallace for another touchdown and a 20-16 lead.
Flacco put the ball on the ground in the clutch. Roethlisberger put the ball in the end zone. That was the correct script, right?
|Joe Flacco appeared to have fumbled the game away, but he finally redeemed himself against the Steelers.|
Only this time, Flacco redeemed himself. After the Steelers went ahead, Flacco misfired on three consecutive passes to give Pittsburgh the ball back. Ray Lewis told Flacco and the other offensive players to keep the faith, the defense would get them the ball back, which it did.
It wasn't necessarily pretty, but on that last drive, Flacco marched the Ravens down the field. When he couldn't convert on third down, he converted on fourth-and-1. After Smith slipped behind a Pittsburgh defender but couldn't haul in the game-winning catch -- his third drop of the day -- with 42 seconds left, Flacco went to the rookie again.
Fourteen seconds left. Game on the line. Flacco to Smith for 26 yards.
Big? It was more.
"It's huge," Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "It's our division rivals. If you think about it, this is the only team in the world that's capable to play like we play and can match us blow for blow just like they did tonight. So it's huge. We swept them, but don't be fooled. We're going to have to see this team in January. Like I said, we just position ourselves so they have to come in M&T [Stadium]."
To a man, the Baltimore players and coaches feel confident that they will see the Steelers again. The two teams played in the 2001, 2008 and 2010 playoffs, so why not again?
"In my eyes, to be totally honest with you, they're the defending AFC champs, so they're still the team to beat," Suggs said. "But if we play Raven football throughout, when we see them again in January, they have to come to our house."
And therein lies the rub. This season is far from over. The Ravens are 6-2 and atop the AFC North standings with the Cincinnati Bengals, who they still have to play twice. They still have to make West Coast trips to Seattle and San Diego, host 7-1 San Francisco, play Cleveland twice and play Indianapolis.
"If we go out to Seattle and lay an egg, this win has a lot less value," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We've done it before. We've been up on [the Steelers], had a big win on them last year here with a last-second victory and came back and dropped a few games. They went right ahead of us, and we ended up coming here in the playoffs."
That didn't end well. For the Ravens in Pittsburgh, it never does, not in January. That's why this November victory was so huge.
What I learned from Week 9:
|There's no question Aaron Rodgers is the most valuable player in the league.|
Aaron Rodgers is the MVP, and it isn't even close. Last season was the first time there was a unanimous winner of the Associated Press's Most Valuable Player award, with Tom Brady winning all 50 of the votes. This year should be the second time.
Rodgers said he likes to play "flawless football," and he has been close to it. He has thrown a league-low three interceptions -- the same number his San Diego counterpart, Philip Rivers, had against the Packers on Sunday -- and ranks first in the league in completion percentage (72.5), yards per pass play (9.9) and touchdowns (24). Rodgers has had a triple-digit passer rating in all eight of his starts.He is without peer. As good as Brady was last season, Rodgers might be even better this season.
You can't spell "elite" without "Eli." Giants defensive end Justin Tuck was responsible for that quip, and he was right.
One of the main criteria for being an elite quarterback is consistency. Eli Manning has been consistently good this season late in games. He has five fourth-quarter comeback wins, two more than the next-closest quarterbacks, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and San Francisco's Alex Smith.
Sunday at New England, the Giants twice trailed the Patriots in the fourth quarter, and twice Manning brought them back. On third-and-5 at the New England 10-yard line, he threw a touchdown strike to Mario Manningham to take a 17-13 lead. After the Patriots scored to retake the lead 20-17, Manning led the Giants on an 80-yard drive in the final 90 seconds that included a huge third-down throw to Jake Ballard and a pass interference call against New England at the goal line.
Manning's fourth-quarter numbers: 8-of-13 for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
He has been consistently clutch, which is also a big reason Manning is elite.
"I've been here seven years with him, [and] I'd dare say he's probably playing has best ball in those seven years," Tuck said.
The Bengals are for real. It sounds weird, I know. But consider a few numbers. Cincinnati is on its first five-game winning streak since 1988. The Bengals have outscored their opponents 87-43 in the fourth quarter and 126-59 in the second half. They have held three opponents without a second-half touchdown and have orchestrated four fourth-quarter comebacks.
After beating Tennessee 24-17, Cincinnati is 5-1 in AFC games, better than Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England.
I need to see more, but I like what Cincinnati has shown so far. It has been resilient, and clutch, unlike Bengals teams of the past.
The 49ers are legit, too. While Cincinnati is in a dogfight for its division, the Niners work is just about done. They are 7-1 for the first time since 1997, with a five-game lead in the NFC West. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, not since San Francisco in 1990 has a team held a five-game division lead through nine weeks of a season.
St. Louis, Seattle and Arizona are just playing for second, while the Niners are playing for a first-round playoff bye.The Eagles still feel they can win the NFC East. Philadelphia is confident, but it will need some help from the 6-2 Giants to win the division.
I stopped by the Eagles' practice facility late last week to see Michael Vick, and he told me that even though the Eagles are 3-4 heading into their game against Chicago on Monday night, they have more than enough time to make a run.
"Oh man, we've got nine games," Vick said. "Plenty of time. One game at a time."
Certainly, it would have been easier had the Eagles not dug a 1-4 hole, but there is a way out. Washington is done. Dallas is wildly inconsistent. The Giants are an impressive 6-2 but still have the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the league, including at San Francisco next weekend, Philadelphia at home, at New Orleans, home to Green Bay and at Dallas.
Philadelphia has the No. 1-ranked offense in the NFL. It has a legitimate running game. The remade defense is coming together, and the coaches have tweaked the "Wide-9" front four to better defend the run. Early on, the Eagles killed themselves with turnovers, but they still moved the ball. They average 449.3 yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry.
And Vick has a little extra motivation. He is indebted to Andy Reid for giving him a second chance in the NFL. Vick said he was upset Eagles fans were calling for Reid to be fired after the team's lackluster start.
"I mean, we all know what goes along with this sport and how you're treated when you don't do right, but it was just unnecessary," Vick said. "It's unnecessary. Some things you just can't control, but yeah, I was upset. I took it personal, because that's our coach, and we care about him, and we want to win for him. We know how much he cares about us, and he wants us to perform at a high level. The only way we could change it was by turning everything around."
The Eagles are in the process of doing just that.
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
|Philip Rivers put up big numbers against the Packers, but was down and out after three interceptions.|
Norv Turner needs to figure out what is going on with Philip Rivers. Maybe it is nothing. Maybe he is just having an off year. But Rivers doesn't look right and his frustration is showing.
In a 45-38 loss to Green Bay, Rivers threw a career-high three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Through eight games, Rivers leads the NFL with 14 picks, surpassing his total from last season, when he had 13 on 541 pass attempts. His career high is 15, set in 2007.
The bad news doesn't stop there.
According to ESPN’ Stats & Information, Rivers is the first player since Peyton Manning in 1998 to have at least six games with two or more picks through the first half of a season. Manning was a rookie then. Rivers is a 29-year-old, eight-year veteran.
Rivers said he is not hurt or distracted, but he is too talented to keep making such game-changing mistakes. The Chargers only have a few days to figure it out; they host Oakland on Thursday night.
The Jets' defense has its swagger back, and that is bad news for New England. The Jets finally won a road game, beating Buffalo 27-11 in a game that wasn't that close. Afterward, New York nose tackle Sione Pouha said the defense, which forced three turnovers including two interceptions of Ryan Fitzpatrick, has "Jetstitude," which is the Jets' version of attitude, whatever that means exactly.
If nothing else, it could mean trouble for New England, which will play at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. In the last two games, the Patriots have struggled offensively on third down, converting just 8 of 25 third-down attempts, including 5-of-15 against the Giants. Brady was particularly ineffective with short throws on third down, completing just two of five attempts of less than 10 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
New England has struggled to move the chains the last two weeks and has the worst defense in the league against the pass. That is not a good combination heading into Jets week.
Jim Caldwell has to be on the hot seat. Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay is prolific on Twitter, bouncing from music lyrics to stream-of-consciousness thinking. He also has recently been sending rather cryptic tweets about his football team.
The most recent came on Sunday after the Colts lost to Atlanta, 31-7: "We will never accept this kind of chronic losingits an unwelcome visitor, that we will not tolerate."
Indianapolis has been outscored 120-24 in its last three games, including a blowout loss to New Orleans. Once the team quits on the coach, Caldwell will be a goner.
Jason Garrett again might be without one of his main offensive weapons. Plagued by hamstring issues since August, Miles Austin re-injured his right hamstring Sunday against Seattle, pulling up lame in the second quarter after making a 37-yard catch.
Austin is scheduled to have an MRI exam on Monday. He has already missed two games with a right hamstring issue that started bothering him in training camp and flared in Week 2 against San Francisco.
Austin had nine catches for 143 yards that game. In the four he has played in since, Austin has managed just 14 catches for 170 yards, with no touchdowns.
A player who will be under review today:
|Julio Jones appears to finally have had his breakout game for Atlanta.|
Julio Jones is a difference-maker. He is a playmaker, that hard-to-find combination of size and speed who can turn nothing into something by simply changing direction.
The Atlanta Falcons paid an enormous price to the Cleveland Browns -- first-, second- and fourth-round picks in 2011, first- and fourth-rounders in 2012 -- to move up 21 spots to select Jones with the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft. Sunday against Indianapolis, Jones showed why.
First, he made a diving catch between three Colts defenders to haul in the first touchdown reception of his NFL career, a 50-yarder from Matt Ryan. A few minutes later, Jones took a short slant from Ryan 80 yards for another touchdown that gave the Falcons a 21-0 lead. On the day, Jones had three catches for 131 yards and two runs for an additional 33 yards.
His alma mater, Alabama, could have used a little of that offensive production Saturday night against LSU. The Falcons, meanwhile, will need it Sunday when they try to keep pace with New Orleans.
Jones is Atlanta's game-changer, its deep threat. If he can stay on the field -- he had missed the Falcons' previous two games with a strained left hamstring -- and continue to get into the end zone, the Falcons are going to challenge the Saints for the NFC South crown.
Notable tweets from around the league:
"Giants showed me today…they are better than I thought..going to be a battle in NFL East" -- @JimmyJohnson, Fox NFL analyst.
"Very disappointed but still have 8 weeks left... Have to make each one if those count!!" -- @NickBarnett, Buffalo linebacker, after the Bills' 27-11 loss to the Jets left them in a three-way tie with the Jets and Patriots at 5-3 in the AFC East.
"I'm proud of @TorreySmithWR lol but he gonna have to take me dinner this week for getting my TD called back lol #Ravens" -- @RayRice27, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, about teammate Torrey Smith, who had a holding penalty on the Ravens' first offensive play against Pittsburgh, negating a long Rice touchdown run.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.