In the latest chapter of the NFL's most black-and-blue rivalry, Joe Flacco and the Ravens stunned the Steelers with a last-second touchdown strike to win, 23-20
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Torrey Smith
Credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP Images

Ali/Frazier. Yankees/Red Sox. Michigan/Ohio State. If the NFL has one rivalry in 2011 that belongs in the same breath as these classic feuds, it’s Pittsburgh/Baltimore. The two cities share a fair amount of blue-collar DNA and their respective football teams play a similar brand of Clubber Lang football. I pity the fool who doesn’t come ready to play on Sunday night. As Cris Collinsworth said during the Football Night in America pregame show, “You get the idea they don’t care if they get fined, they don’t care if they get penalized. Sometimes I wonder if they even care who wins on the scoreboard. They just want to beat each other up.”

NBC promised “4 Quarters of Fury,” and borrowed some boxing imagery to set up the primetime showcase. Bold, since, to be honest, there haven’t been “4 Quarters of Interesting Football,” combined, in the last three Sunday night games, all one-sided snoozers. NBC was betting on the belligerent attitude of Terrell Suggs, Baltimore’s outspoken defensive standout, who spent the week spewing venom at the black and gold. The Steelers took the high road, and simply came out wearing their Heinz Spicy Mustard helmets. Good enough for me. Come out fighting, boys, and protect yourself at all times.

But first, the undercard. In New England, Eli Manning and the Giants did themselves — and their local rivals, the Jets — a favor by edging Tom Brady and the Patriots, 24-20. Manning’s been in the league eight years now, and he’s won a Super Bowl, but I still have no clue whether he’s really a good quarterback. Today, he certainly was, throwing two scores in the fourth quarter, but he’s always a week away from playing like a sophomore stand-in. Maybe it’s just his “Golly, gee” post-game press conferences that make me question his steel — he always sounds like Ed Norton’s “split-personality” killer from the movie Primal Fear. Loyal Giants fans are just helpless Richard Geres, praying the calculating, accurate Eli shows up on Sundays.

Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, is playing the quarterback position as well as anyone since… well, ever. After four more touchdown passes today during the perfect Packers’ 45-38 win over San Diego, Rodgers now has a passing rating of 129.1, which is a good 49 points higher than Tim Tebow’s. In St. Tim’s defense, he did toss two TDs and rush for more than 100 yards in the Broncos’ victory over the Raiders. And playing in the pathetic AFC West means Tebow only needs to win a few more games to reach the playoffs.

Which brings us to Baltimore’s quarterback Joe Flacco. He’s unfortunately got a little Eli in him, leading his team to playoffs, but always capable of a big-game stinker. My personal pet peeve with him is how lackadaisical he seems. If he’s in a groove, his three-step drop is smooth and relaxed, as if he and his receivers are the only players on the field. But when a pressure defense is breathing down his neck, his drops are… smooth and relaxed, as if he and his receivers are the only players on the field. He never seems in a hurry to get rid of the ball. Still, NBC’s Dan Patrick — who extended his Foster the People reference streak to a league-leading three weeks — dropped the question, “How do you stop Joe Flacco?” like he was the second coming of Dan Marino. Rodney Harrison sidestepped it by talking about Troy Polamalu and then uncorked this week’s “Rodney Harrison Award for Most Obvious Analytical Statement That Retains a Whiff of Profundity Because Rodney Harrison Said It and He Is Undeniably Cool”: “I believe the team that limits the turnovers will be the team that wins.”

He’s not the best analyst in the business for nothing, folks. Faith Hill, take it away! Sing that iconic punk Joan Jett song with enhanced lyrics like, “Sunday Night Football on NBC; Al and Cris are the best on TV!” (I hate myself, alright.)

NEXT: Where exactly is Ball So Hard University?

If this game was a boxing match, the Ravens nearly had an early knockout. On the first play from scrimmage, Baltimore’s Ray Rice scampered 76 yards for a touchdown — but a holding penalty nullified it. Still, the Ravens drove to the Steelers’ 1-yard line and had three shots at the endzone. They passed on a fourth and settled for three points. They had the lead, but they left four points on the table.

After Pittsburgh punted away their first possession, Baltimore marched down the field again before stalling at the Steelers’ 22. No worries. Send in reliable kicker Billy Cundiff. What’s that infographic say? He’s made 32 straight field goals from inside 50 yards? And… wide right. Of course. The Ravens had run 22 offensive plays, compared to only three by the Steelers. Yet, they only lead by a field goal.

Field goals, though, were the only commodity in the first half — besides brain-rattling collisions. Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward was knocked senseless and forced from the game, and the teams exchanged field goals until it was 9-6 at the break. The defenses were stingy as expected, but they weren’t necessarily dominating. Both offenses had success moving the ball, and the Steelers offensive line, which has endured several injuries to key players earlier in the season, looked recovered, providing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with time to pass. The defenses simply tightened whenever the threatening offenses reached the red zone.

For all his bluster, though, Suggs was surprisingly missing in action. Since boldly introducing himself during the starting lineups as a graduate of Ball So Hard University (The Big East immediately invited BSHU into their conference), Suggs was shut down completely in the first half. In fact, he’d ultimately finish with only one assisted tackle. But early in the third quarter, Roethlisberger gifted him with an interception that he couldn’t have dropped if he tried. The Ravens’ offense converted it into a touchdown, and they suddenly led by 10.

Facing a second consecutive loss to their hated divisional rivals, the Steelers responded. On a 3rd-and-17 from his own 23-yard line, Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for 23 yards, sparking an 80-yard scoring drive that pulled them within three, 16-13. But Baltimore had the ball in Pittsburgh territory when Collinsworth decided to double-down on the Rodney Harrison Corollary, saying, “Usually this game will turn on a turnover.” Five plays later, Flacco fumbled the ball and Pittsburgh recovered. Bing, bang, boom. The Steelers scored again, with Roethlisberger hitting Mike Wallace from 25 yards out.

Fourth quarter. 4:59 remaining. Ravens down by four. It’s Flacco Time! But which Flacco would emerge? Incomplete pass, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, punt. That was ugly. All Pittsburgh had to do now was salt away the clock, but they did better than that. They got within field goal range and sent out the kicker to extend their lead. But an unforgivable delay of game penalty pushed them out of range and forced the Steelers to punt instead. So Flacco and the Ravens weren’t dead yet. 2:28 left. Ball on their own 8 yard-line. All yours, Joe. Running the hurry-up, Flacco methodically moved the Ravens down the field, converting a 4th-and-1 with 66 seconds left to keep the drive alive. Then, he delivered a gorgeous strike to rookie receiver Torrey Smith for the game-winner… and he dropped it in the endzone! Bless his heart, he’s got to be sickest man in America! Unshaken, Flacco connected on another third-down pass — for the game, he was an amazing 14-18 on third-down — and the Steelers’ D, for once, was on its heels. With eight seconds left, Pittsburgh’s secondary let Smith sneak behind them and Flacco found him the endzone from 26 yards out. Smith went from goat to hero in an instant. Flacco looked like Johnny Unitas, and for once, it wasn’t just because of his haircut. Final score: Baltimore 23, Pittsburgh 20.

One final note: On Pittsburgh’s last desperate offensive play, Mike Wallace fumbled the ball and Baltimore recovered. Trivial, perhaps, but it represented the Steelers’ second turnover. Baltimore committed only one turnover. So, it’s worth recognizing that Rodney Harrison, once again, was correct in his Obvious Analytical Statement That Retains a Whiff of Profundity. And cool.

What was more surprising about the finish to last night’s game: That Pittsburgh’s superlative D had a mental lapse when it mattered most, or that it was Joe Cool Flacco picking them apart? Congratulations, Indianapolis! Sure, you lost again, 31-7; but the previously-winless Dolphins slipped up and actually won. The Colts are now in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes driver’s seat. Does this make you think that Peyton Manning will come back this season, just to win a few games and prevent the Colts from drafting his successor?

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