Two marquee match-ups in college and pro football took center stage on Sunday
Score one for the NFL, where the marquee matchup vastly outshone its college counterpart this weekend. Pittsburgh-Baltimore was everything that Alabama-LSU could have been: A bruising matchup of defensive titans, yes, but a game that also included some truly clutch offensive heroics, grace under pressure and competent special teams play.
There were also subplots galore in Baltimore's 23–20 win over the Steelers. You had a guy (Torrey Smith) who went from goat to hero in the space of five plays; a maligned quarterback (Joe Flacco) standing tall and exorcising demons in leading a game-winning 92-yard drive into the teeth of a Dick LeBeau defense on the field where two of the last three Ravens seasons have ended; and another 300-yard game from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who led a stirring fourth-quarter comeback in becoming the first Steelers QB with three straight 300-yard games.
But above all, you had guys knocking each other's heads off. Cris Collinsworth dug deep for the appropriate cliché: This was not a game for the faint of heart.
"This Steelers-Ravens game is a game for men," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "This is a game for big men. You've got to shine bright in this game if you want to win this game. And nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game."
Two weeks ago, Flacco was in Derek Anderson territory, coming off an abysmal Monday Night performance in a 12–7 loss to the Jags; today, he's the leader of a 6–2 Ravens team that has swept the Steelers for the first time since 2006. His partner on the game-winning touchdown, receiver Torrey Smith, faced down demons of his own in catching the game-winner. Smith was called for holding on the first play from scrimmage, erasing a 76-yard TD run by Ray Rice. On the climactic drive, he had a sure touchdown bounce off his fingertips. But he rewarded Flacco's confidence with a 26-yard TD catch with eight seconds left.
And so ends the Steelers' one week as the AFC's anointed ones — although the Ravens haven't written off their AFC North rivals.
"We swept them, but don't be fooled — we'll see them again in January," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had the game's only interception. "This is the only team in the world that can play like we play and match us blow for blow."
• Speaking of clutch, Eli Manning reprised his Super Bowl-winning drive against New England, doing it in Foxborough this time to beat the Patriots 24–20. Manning took the Giants 80 yards in eight plays, and once again he benefited from a miraculous catch by an unsung receiver wearing No. 85. This time, it was tight end Jake Ballard, who made a leaping 28-yard grab and then completed a drive for the ages by catching a one-yard Manning throw for the winning score. The G-men have a two-game lead in the NFC East, while the Patriots are tied with the Jets and Bills and fighting for their playoff lives.
• Tim Tebow's 2–1 as Denver's starting QB, but he has to share credit for the Broncos' 38–24 win over Oakland with ageless running back Willis McGahee, who ran for 163 yards and two scores, including the game-clinching 24-yarder with 1:53 left. Tebow did add 117 yards, as he and McGahee became only the fifth QB-RB combo to rush for 100-plus yards in the same game. Tebow's passing? A work in progress: 10-of-21, 124 yards, two TDs, no picks. Since getting the starting job, Tebow's thrown five TDs and one interception.
• The Dolphins forgot what this season's all about, as they actually won a game and took a hit in the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. I guess that pride thing got in the way. "All I've wanted to do for seven weeks is see these guys smile," said coach Tony Sparano of his 1–7 Dolphins. Well, Tony, fans in your town aren't smiling today.
• The Harbaugh brothers are a combined 13–3. Not to be outdone by John Harbaugh's 6–2 Ravens, Jim Harbaugh's Niners improved to 7–1 with a 19–11 win over the Redskins. They've won six in a row. Mark it down: They'll host a playoff game this season.
• The Packers are chasing history at this point. The NFL's lone unbeatens were tested by the Chargers, but here's your key number: 3–0, as in interceptions thrown by Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers. The NFL's career passer rating leader, Rodgers has just had the best half-season in NFL history. There's no reason to think he'll hit a wall.
— by Rob Doster