BALTIMORE — The football left quarterback Joe Flacco’s fingertips in a hurry and artlessly skidded across the ground, bouncing toward rookie tight end Ed Dickson and painfully ending the Baltimore Ravens’ dream of sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Instead of having kicker Billy Cundiff attempt to boot a 49-yard field goal into a blustery wind with goalpost flags and trash blowing in the wrong direction, the Ravens had Flacco go for it on fourth down.
The incompletion spelled doom for the Ravens as they relinquished their grip on the AFC North division, absorbing an emotional 13-10 defeat in their annual grudge match with the Steelers on Sunday night before 71,418 at chilly M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens stumbled out of first place.
Steelers fullback Isaac Redman bulled through tackle attempts by strong safety Dawan Landry and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson on a nine-yard game-winning touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the final minutes.
“Obviously, it was a tough loss,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Basically, we gave the game away at the end. We should’ve won the football game, and that’s disappointing. We’ll keep fighting like we always do. We’ll find a way to get into the playoffs. We might still win the division.”
The Ravens (8-4) fell one game behind the Steelers (9-3) in the division standings with four games remaining and will probably have to battle for a wild-card playoff berth. And the Ravens’ eight-game home winning streak that dated back to last season was halted, ending the longest current streak in the league.
“This one is a heartbreaker,” offensive tackle Michael Oher said. “That’s our division rival, we want to beat those guys every time. We wanted to take control of the division. To lose this one, we’ll have to keep fighting for the rest of the year.”
Flacco short-armed the throw after he was unable to find Anquan Boldin downfield.
“I was working Anquan the same route we were able to hit T.J. in earlier in the game,” Flacco said. “It worked out for us before. That wasn’t open. I never got my hips turned around enough to get enough pop on the ball over to Ed.”
The Ravens didn’t feel comfortable having Cundiff attempt the field goal due to the weather conditions.
Ultimately, they felt like they made a high-percentage call strategically.
“It was just a tough wind,” Harbaugh said. “It was really outside of our range that we designated going in. We felt like we had a better chance to get the first down than we had to get the field goal. Were you down there on the field? Did you see the wind down there?
“Did you see the way that the ball was tracking with the field goals in pregame? It was a tough kick. I’m pretty good at that. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I understand what those guys can do and what they can’t do. It would have been a very low-percentage kick.”
The Ravens were in that situation because they went conservative in the second half after building a 10-3 lead by the third quarter.
Cundiff said he didn’t have a problem with not being given the opportunity to kick the football.
“If you look at the situation and really put yourself in the coach’s shoes, he’s saying there’s a higher statistical probability that we get the first down than make that kick,” Cundiff said. “In the NFL on a 50-yard field goal, percentages drop below 50 percent on a good day. In the fourth quarter, I felt the wind pick up.
“I don’t think I made any from that range in pregame. I don’t think their guy made any in pregame. We had said the 27-yard line to make a 45-yarder. Ultimately, what can I legitimately make? I’m watching trash get blowed around on the sidelines.”
Before the critical fourth down, Landry and Johnson both missed tackle attempts in the open field.
First, Redman wriggled out of Landry’s grasp. Then, he busted through Johnson to get into the end zone.
“I had an opportunity to make a tackle at the end and I missed it,” Johnson said. “I should have made the tackle. It would’ve been a big deal to hold them to three, but we didn’t get it done.”
Landry declined comment after the game.
Prior to Redman’s touchdown, Flacco fumbled on a huge hit by Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu that outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered and returned to the Ravens’ nine-yard line.
Three plays later, the Steelers scored the game-winner.
“It was an all-out blitz,” Flacco said. “They really brought everybody, and I took three steps and raised my arm and just got hit. I was pretty shocked to see it myself, but that guy has made that play in his career.”
Harbaugh declined to criticize offensive coordinator Cam Cameron when asked why the Ravens were throwing the football on second-and-five with 3:22 remaining while clinging to a four-point lead.
"I don’t really sit in here and criticize my coaches’ play-calling after the fact," Harbaugh said. "Never have, never will."
The Ravens decided not to challenge the fumble with an instant replay review.
Flacco had his arm back and was starting to throw when Polamalu knocked it away.
"There was talk about it," Harbaugh said. "But when I saw it on tape, I didn’t want to waste a timeout. It was a fumble."
It only took a few minutes for blood to be shed, a gory start that perfectly illustrated the Ravens’ brutally hard-hitting grudge match against the Steelers.
Massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata caught Roethlisberger with an open hand to the face in the first quarter, causing his nose to turn sideways at an unnatural angle and blood to drip down his face.
That wasn’t the knockout punch, though, as Roethlisberger would gamely remain in the scrum despite a broken nose to go with a broken foot that severely limited his mobility and accuracy.
Later in the half, Flacco connected with wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a touchdown strike in the middle of the end zone.
Flacco froze the defense with his play-action fake, scrambled to his right and bought Boldin enough time to break off his route and lose cornerback Bryant McFadden.
The 14-yard touchdown pass staked the Ravens to a 7-0 lead.
Minutes earlier, Flacco launched a 61-yard bomb that hit Boldin in stride behind safety Ryan Clark. It’s the longest play for Boldin since joining the Ravens.
It was a strong drive for Flacco as he completed all six of his throws for 103 yards. The Ravens endured three penalties, including a false start on gimpy offensive tackle Michael Oher.
For Boldin, it marked his team-high seventh touchdown catch of the season.
The tenor of the game was set by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who swarmed Roethlisberger repeatedly with 1 ½ sacks by halftime and five quarterback hits.
Roethlisberger’s ability to improvise willed the Steelers back into the game in the second half.
“That’s his thing,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “He’s going to get hit, and he’s going to break loose. He’s a tough guy, a great player.”
It was a relentless assault on the pocket as Suggs exploited left offensive tackle Jonathan Scott, attacking him with superior quickness and leverage.
In the third quarter, inside linebacker Jameel McClain knocked Steelers tight end Heath Miller out of the game with a concussion after a devastating shoulder shot to the helmet.
Roethlisberger overcame his injuries to put the Ravens away in the final minutes.
“It’s like a playoff game, you’ve got to play four quarters,” Johnson said. “You can’t play three and play all the way up until the last three minutes. It’s too bad, because we felt like we controlled the entire game, and then you look up, and it’s over. We have to get past this. We have to win some games and move ahead.”
The game began inauspiciously for the Ravens as tight end Todd Heap pulled his right hamstring, grabbing the back of his leg as he pulled up on a fly pattern. He didn’t return.
Plus, Flacco was sacked by Ziggy Hood. And he was incomplete on his first three throws.
However, Flacco would quickly pick up steam.
And the Ravens’ defense continued to harass Roethlisberger into errant throws.
In the third quarter, the Ravens and Steelers exchanged field goals as Pittsburgh got on the scoreboard after being held scoreless in the first half for the first time this year.
With Roethlisberger engineering an eight-play, 53-yard drive keyed by his 23-yard completion to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Steelers capped the drive on a 45-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.
Punter Daniel Sepulveda, who injured his knee during the first half, was able to limp onto the field to hold for Suisham.
Suggs recorded 1 ½ sacks and five quarterback hits, but the Ravens couldn’t stop Roethlisberger from engineering a strong comeback.
"It doesn’t matter," Suggs said. “They’re going to be happy as hell on that airplane back to Pittsburgh. It doesn’t matter. They got the ‘W’."
The Ravens immediately answered, issuing a rebuttal in the form of a 13-play, 60-yard drive that stalled out at the Steelers’ six-yard line with three consecutive incompletions by Flacco.
They had to settle for a 24-yard Billy Cundiff field goal after Flacco threw incomplete to his left to Boldin.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Flacco said. “I feel we gave this one away.”
Now, the Ravens have to move on as they prepare for next Monday night’s game against the Houston Texans.
“Man, it’s tough,” Wilson said. “We’ve got another big one coming next week, and we can’t sit here and dwell on this. We’ll definitely have another chance at this.”