PITTSBURGH — The clock ticking and a season filled with promise evaporating, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap, turned to his left and put the AFC North title in the hands of Antonio Brown.
The star wide receiver caught the ball at the Baltimore 1 and waited for the hit he knew was coming. When it arrived from Ravens safety Eric Weddle and linebacker C.J. Mosley, Brown ducked his head and stretched the ball across the goal line for a playoff-clinching touchdown that symbolized his team’s considerable resilience.
Reeling in November. Heck, reeling early in the fourth quarter at home on Christmas against an archrival that’s more than had their number in recent years, the Steelers are heading to the playoffs anyway.
Brown’s lunging 4-yard score with 9 seconds left lifted Pittsburgh to a gripping 31-27 victory and a second division title in three years, delivering just as Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell predicted Brown would.
“Over there by the heaters before the final drive, he said ‘AB, you got to go down there and get the game winner,” Brown said.
It was a play Brown’s teammates have seen many times, just never with so much on the line.
“That’s AB,” wide receiver Damarcus Ayers said. “He does it so much in practice, it doesn’t ‘wow’ you in a game. In this particular moment it’s like, ‘he’s done it again.’”
Baltimore (8-7) was eliminated from contention.
Brown finished with 10 receptions for 96 yards to join Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison as the only players with four straight 100-catch seasons. Roethlisberger shook off a pair of third-quarter interceptions to finish with 279 yards passing and three touchdowns. Bell ran for 122 yards and a score and hauled in another on an ad-libbed play by Roethlisberger as Pittsburgh rallied from a 10-point deficit to win its sixth straight.
The Steelers (10-5) host during wild-card weekend on either Jan. 7 or 8, heady territory considering they were 4-5 after falling to Dallas on Nov. 13. As New Year’s nears, they haven’t lost again.
“I think today showed some resolve,” Roethlisberger said. “I think we showed some fight, no quit.”
The Ravens took the lead on Kyle Juszczyk’s 10-yard burst up the middle with 1:18 remaining. But Roethlisberger calmly led the Steelers 75 yards in 10 plays to eliminate Baltimore (8-7), the last 4 yards on a play that could live on in team history — depending on how far Pittsburgh’s momentum can carry it.
Joe Flacco passed for 262 yards, including a pretty 18-yard dart to Steve Smith that put Baltimore up 14-10 early in the third quarter. Smith ended up with seven receptions for 79 yards, but the Ravens crumbled late. Their defense put up little resistance as Roethlisberger clinically got his team in position to get back to the playoffs.
“We didn’t want (Roethlisberger) to have a good game,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We didn’t want (Brown) and (Bell) to kind of put their imprint on the game, or their stamp on the game, and they did that. They’re a good team. They’re well deserving. They won the division, we’ll applaud them, but we’ll be back.”
It’s a destination that seemed to be disappearing right in front of Pittsburgh’s eyes in the third quarter. Roethlisberger threw a pair of interceptions deep in Pittsburgh territory — both poorly thrown balls to heavily covered targets — that helped the Ravens take control.
“It’s pretty special the way we won it,” Roethlisberger said. “Especially after feeling the way I felt at a certain point in that game and feeling like you let guys down and you blew it.”
Instead it’s the Ravens who will spend a long offseason wondering how their mastery over the Steelers — and a potential postseason berth — dissolved in the final 12 minutes. Baltimore will miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
“With everything you work for and you don’t reach your goal, so it’s. it’s just somber,” Weddle said. “It’s down. Give them credit. Ben got it rolling.”
BIG ROLE FOR AYERS
Obscure rookie wide receiver Demarcus Ayers drew a pass interference play that set up Bell’s score after finally making the active roster. Ayers also caught a 9-yard pass on Pittsburgh’s winning drive.
“Ben told me last night he we going to come to me at some point,” Ayers said. “I couldn’t sleep. I just tried to stay ready.”
Baltimore’s typically reliable special teams let the Ravens down in the second quarter. A high snap on a field goal attempt by Pro Bowler Justin Tucker ended without Tucker even getting the 45-yarder off.
“There were a couple of plays left out there,” Flacco said. “Probably five or 10 points left out there.”
Ravens: Baltimore is just 2-6 in Cincinnati under John Harbaugh.
Steelers: Pittsburgh hasn’t lost at home to Cleveland since 2003.