Commentary

Steelers survive Crowbar Bowl II

Roethlisberger's pain threshold symbolic of what was needed to avenge loss to Ravens

Originally Published: December 5, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Mike Tomlin stood outside the visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium as two Baltimore cops smushed a Pittsburgh Steelers fan's face against a white cinder block wall. The fan, wearing a LaMarr Woodley jersey, began screaming in pain as the cops pulled his arms behind his back and began to lead him away.

"Be cool, buddy," said the Steelers coach.

"Tomlin," said the man between screams, "I love you, baby!"

Only minutes removed from the Steelers' crucial 13-10 win against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday evening, Tomlin didn't try hiding a smile. He appreciates effort and passion -- and the apparently over-served fan had both.

Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Rob CarrThe Ravens broke Roethlisberger's nose, but he played on.

So did Tomlin's underdog Steelers (9-3), which is how they beat the Ravens (8-4) to take a precious one-game lead in the AFC North -- The Division That Love Forgot. No other explanation works.

"C'mon, big boy," said Tomlin, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger limped down the field-level concourse and toward the locker room door.

Without Roethlisberger, the Ravens, not the Steelers, would be 9-3 today. Instead, the Steelers now have the very inside track to a playoff bye week and some type of home-field advantage.

This wasn't a football game; it was a bar fight in shoulder pads. It shouldn't have been played at this beauty of a stadium, but in the Octagon or a very dark alley.

Roethlisberger left here in a walking boot and with a broken nose so disfigured that you wondered how it still worked. But at least he had a win to show for it.

"I look like I went 12 rounds with [Manny] Pacquiao," Roethlisberger said.

Or four quarters with the Ravens, who won the Week 4 matchup in Pittsburgh 17-14.

"It's a Steelers-Ravens game, right?'' he said. "Hard fought all the way to the end."

Steelers tight end Heath Miller was knocked out -- and out of the game with a concussion. Steelers right tackle Flozell Adams, his leg dragging because of a high ankle sprain, had to be helped off the field. Even Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda injured his ACL and is out for the remainder of the season.

"That's why we believe that's the No. 1 rivalry in football," Tomlin said afterward. "It's a humbling thing to be a part of … We've got a big-time respect for that football team. They've earned it and hopefully we've earned their respect."

The Steelers and Ravens might respect each other, but they don't like each other. If the NFL has a Bama-Auburn-like rivalry, this is it. You get bruises just watching it.

There was nothing subtle about the game. It was crowbar football. Hard shots. Borderline cheap shots. Pushing. Shoving. Woofing.

And that was just in the warm-ups.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison, Troy Polamalu
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireIt was a hard-hitting night as always for James Harrison, left, and Troy Polamalu.

Figure on some NFL-imposed fines from the game -- not that the Ravens or Steelers care. Pittsburgh got a December victory that bumps it to nine victories with only four regular-season games remaining. Unless they turn into the Carolina Panthers, I like the Steelers' chances to hold on to the division lead -- amazing, given the number of injuries they've had.

Depending on the source, Roethlisberger either played the game with a broken bone in his right foot (his plant foot for passes) or, according to the Steelers, he aggravated a previous injury (which happened to be a broken foot). Doesn't matter, he was hurting.

Then Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata popped him in the nose with a hand that got through Roethlisberger's face mask. Suddenly, Roethlisberger's nose looked like a blood geyser.

"The broken nose took a lot of the [foot] pain away,'' he said.

Roethlisberger stayed in the game, even though the Steelers had to scrap all plays requiring him to take snaps under center. He couldn't move well enough for that.

"He actually looks better with a broken nose,'' said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "He's a warrior."

He wasn't the only one. Sepulveda, screwed-up ACL and all, couldn't punt anymore, but he still limped onto the field to hold for kicks.

"And we respect him for that," Tomlin said.

This rivalry would expect no less. It is played by two teams that play hard, hit hard and talk hard. Who cares if it was a low-scoring game, or if there were a combined 18 penalties, or that no player rushed for more than 45 yards or threw for more than 266 yards?

Roethlisberger's pain threshold and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's fumble-producing sack of Joe Flacco late in the fourth quarter were the difference-makers. Well, that and a stiff December wind that convinced Ravens coach John Harbaugh to forget about a 48-yard, game-tying field goal attempt and instead try to convert a fourth-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 31 with 37 seconds remaining.

Tough to second-guess Harbaugh's decision, especially with the Wizard of Oz-like wind conditions. Flacco had tight end Ed Dickson open, but short-hopped the pass.

"But we're going to move on,'' said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who terrorized the Steelers' offensive line. "It's going to suck. It's going to hurt tonight, but the moment I get home, I'm going to kiss both of my babies and get over it … I may have some diapers to change. Daddy will be daddy.''

And this rivalry will be The Rivalry. Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said it takes his body four to five days to heal after a Ravens game. Ward acknowledged the intensity of the New York Jets-New England Patriots matchup, but "this rivalry has been going on for years. … To beat Baltimore on the road, they're over there sick right now.''

If you can find beauty in brutality, then Steelers-Ravens is the place to be. Don't believe me? Then ask the Steelers fan in the Woodley No. 56 jersey. He might be still in lockup.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.;

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