Ravens provide Steelers with winning blueprint
NEW ORLEANS — Twice in four seasons, the Baltimore Ravens' road to the Super Bowl ended abruptly with a January loss in Pittsburgh. This season, they made it to the NFL title game despite losing to the Steelers at home in December.
With a combined three Super Bowl appearances between them since 2008, the Ravens and Steelers couldn't have played two closer games this season. Each won by three points on the other team's home field in a rivalry that players from both teams consider to be the NFL's most competitive, closely contested and punishing.
Most punitive, too.
“When you play the Steelers, it's like a playoff game,” tackle Bryant McKinnie said Wednesday.
Given how tight those games were, why were the rivals' seasons so contrasting? The Ravens are a victory away from winning the Lombardi Trophy despite losing four of five late in the season. The Steelers (8-8) didn't even make it into the tournament.
“You have years like that, but (if you're the Steelers), you've got to bounce back,” said Ravens backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, who spent four seasons in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens' bounce-back came after franchise figurehead Ray Lewis returned from a 10-game injury layoff, a shakeup stabilized the offensive line and Joe Flacco returned to playing like the efficient quarterback who has won eight playoff games in five seasons.
The Steelers' bounce-back? They're still awaiting it.
“We were hungry, and we worked more,” said wide receiver Jacoby Jones, whose punt return touchdown proved the difference in the Ravens' 13-10 win at Pittsburgh. “I'm not saying they weren't hungry or worked, but we got to the point where it was determination. We were determined.”
Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda believes Pittsburgh's season unraveled because of a common culprit — injuries, especially those to Ben Roethlisberger — and an atypical one for the Steelers, turnovers and mistakes.
“Down the end there, we did a good job of taking care of the ball,” Yanda said. “The Steelers had a couple of games where they had a lot of turnovers and the one game they had eight turnovers. It's just tough to win games if you don't take care of the football. That's something that we take pride in every day, that we take care of the football.”
During the second half of the season, the Steelers had 22 turnovers — tied for the second most in the league — while the Ravens had eight.
Yanda has another theory: All those recent playoff games against the Patriots and Steelers helped harden these Ravens for a difficult run in which they have beaten each of the two top AFC seeds, No. 1 Denver and No. 2 New England, on the road. The Ravens have played the Patriots or Pittsburgh in the playoffs every season since 2008.
“We've played in the playoffs a bunch and played Pittsburgh and New England a lot, and we're in tight ballgames a bunch,” Yanda said. “When you get two good teams and you don't turn the ball over a bunch, it's going to be a tight game that comes down to a play here and there. And that tests you.”