The Raiders Game
I’ve divided this post into two segments. Here is the first: reflections on the Massacre Formerly Known As A Football Game, which occurred between the Ravens and the Raiders on Sunday afternoon. For Ravens fans, there wasn’t too much to take from this game: We expected to win, and we did. The only delightfully surprising wrinkle was that we were able to watch the win without suffering several low-grade cardiac infarctions along the way: a new positive in what has otherwise been an uncomfortable and slightly traumatizing season. It’s rare to see the Ravens beat a team so thoroughly, in every facet, from start to finish that we get to trot out Very Poor Man’s Michael Vick, a.k.a., Tyrod Taylor—the Brian Scalabrine (or Darko Milicic, take your pick) of the NFL—to human-cigar it up for a few series.
We hummed on offense: Ray Rice scored a touchdown (off the rare shotgun dive that was successful!), our two-headed tight end monster of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson became heavily involved, youngster and heir to the Anquan Boldin possession receiver throne Tandon Doss snagged a beautiful high pass over the middle, speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones ran trackmeets down the sidelines (which opened up the middle for the tight ends, la-di-da), and Joseph Vincent Flacco ran for a touchdown and threw for three more, amassing the most yardage he has ever in a game. Even the defense looked good, with the secondary and the defensive line finally realizing their symbiotic relationship: The D-line got pressure, sometimes even with three rushers or fewer (remarkably), which forced Carson Palmer to make short throws that we converged on. We also hopped on the “swatting” bandwagon revived this year by the Texans, with at least six throws by Palmer batted at the line, one of those becoming an interception. Special teams were excellent, too, with Jacoby Jones scoring on a 105-yard kickoff return (that was essentially meaningless by that point, but still) and punter Sam Koch plowing into the end zone for a touchdown off a fake field goal (that was also meaningless, BUT STILL.)
All in all, it was a great Sunday for the Ravens and their fans, whose minds and hearts deserved a break from the usual upheaval. Baltimore scored 55 points, a franchise record, which are the most points the Raiders have allowed since 1981 and the most points scored by any team so far this season (a record that might stand, which would, curiously and hilariously, hand the Most Points Scored in a Game During the 2012-13 Season Award to one of the most uninspiring offensive teams in recent memory). But as Dan Dierdorf asked aloud as we took a 48 to 17 lead with four minutes left in the third quarter, “Can this show play on the road?” Indeed, Dan, that is the question every Ravens fan wants to know. We, and the nation, are about to learn the answer to that question—for realzies.
The Steelers Game
It goes without saying that I hate the Steelers. My hate for the Patriots is more violent, and my hate for the Jets is more laden in schadenfreude, but my hate for the Steelers is deep and abiding. It is best described as a slow-roasting, crackling hate, the kind that furrows brows and upturns lips. It’s a disgust that comes all too naturally, and I will harbor it forever, bestowing it upon my first-born. All of that said, however—pretty tough break for the Steelers to lose Ben Roethlisberger, the one person they couldn’t afford to lose for any stretch of time during their suddenly turned-around/not-worthless season.
I won’t be disingenuous: I have been furiously checking for updates about Pig Pen’s likelihood to play against the Ravens, because deep, deep down, I want Baltimore to beat Pittsburgh more than I want anything in the world (except maybe a lifetime’s supply of orange juice). I don’t think this makes me a monster: In fact, I think most fans would take an unfair win by their team over an unfair loss, since asterisks tend to mean jack-skippy in the grand scheme of things. But Roethlisberger plays the way he plays—improvisational and unorthodox—and if the Steelers can live with that while he is pulling third down conversions from his nether-regions, then they must live with that when it injures him.
So, the Ravens play the Steelers on Sunday night in a fight for the division lead, and, in all likelihood, veteran Byron Leftwich will be under center. If the Ravens win, we hand the Steelers their third conference loss and take a two-game lead in the division, which hurts Black and Gold’s chances of being anything more than a wild card in the postseason. If the Steelers win, they temporarily take the division lead by way of a head-to-head tiebreaker. If Leftwich, metaphorical grandfather of Blaine Gabbert, is put in charge of the Pittsburgh offense, in theory we should see a plodding, boring, and somewhat depressing crapfest that falls somewhere between barely good enough (if the Steelers are lucky) and predictably terrible (if we are): Leftwich has a long, slow throwing motion, he isn’t too mobile anymore, and his vision and instincts as a starting quarterback have probably soured. But because this Baltimore defense is not its old self, we just can’t know anymore, can we? Leftwich has been around the block, and while Pittsburgh has yet to beat Baltimore in the Pig Pen Era when anyone but the big oaf himself is quarterbacking, Baltimore has struggled with his replacements. (Yes, beaten them all, but still struggled.)
I am uneasy. Pittsburgh will be scarily up for this game with the loss of their leader. They’ll probably attack us on the ground, thanks to our suspect run defense and their improving offensive line, which will take pressure off Leftwich—a bad thing. It’s a primetime game in Pittsburgh, so the referees are likely to meddle—another bad thing. While beating down the Raiders gave us much-needed swagger, we are a different team away from M&T, scoring half as many points and getting half as many yards while Flacco earns half as good a quarterback rating (Seriously, it drops from 100 to 58 on the road.) This game will be decided by the fact that the Steelers can probably contain the hot-and-cold Ravens offense just enough to limit Leftwich’s errors and pound the rock. I’d love to be wrong, but I sense that the Ravens—the better team when the Steelers don’t have Roethlisberger—will fall sickeningly short this time. Inspired and creative, the Steelers will send us to 7-3.