PITTSBURGH — Ravens-Steelers games always seem to come down to the fourth quarter, the final drive, the last pass, the final possession. This one was even closer than that.
It came down to the final inch.
Ben Roethlisberger threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with nine seconds remaining to finish off a frantic 21-point Pittsburgh fourth quarter and the Steelers rallied to beat the Baltimore Ravens 31-27 Sunday and win the AFC North.
“When AB (Brown) came in there I thought I could get it to him, he caught it at the 1 and he reached over and it was just an awesome play by him,” Roethlisberger said.
And an awful play for the Ravens that effectively ended their season.
“He had a great effort,” said linebacker C.J. Mosely, who, with safety Eric Weddle, had Brown wrapped up at the 1 but couldn’t keep him from getting the ball across the goal line. “He reached out and he made the play. He made the play. He made a play he needed to.”
Roethlisberger and Brown needed every inch of those four yards, too, because if Brown hadn’t shaken off those two defenders to barely stretch the ball across the goal line and win it, the clock might have run out and the Ravens would have won — the game, and probably the division.
“It was all or nothing,” a relieved Roethlisberger said after the Steelers secured a third consecutive playoff appearance — and sent the despised Ravens home not only for the holidays, but the offseason.
Just like it virtually was an all-or-nothing game.
The Steelers (10-5) overcame two Roethlisberger interceptions, a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and a 10-yard, go-ahead touchdown run by Kyle Juszcyk with 1:25 remaining to defeat the Ravens (8-7) for the first time in five games, eliminate Baltimore and win their NFL-best 22nd division title since 1970.
“Really, that was the difference in the game. They made one more play than we did,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team had won six of seven in what might be the NFL’s best — and certainly closest — rivalry.
The Steelers looked to be in position to win their seventh AFC North title since 2002 when two Le’Veon Bell touchdowns of 7 yards each about four minutes apart, aided by a key pass interference penalty, helped them shake off that 20-10 Baltimore lead and take a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Bell ran for 122 yards on 20 carries.
But Baltimore surged back as Joe Flacco mounted a 75-yard, go-ahead TD drive ended by Juszcyk’s run up the middle — the third time in the drive he gained key yardage. Flacco went 30 of 44 for 262 yards.
“It’s a huge swing of emotions,” Juszcyk said. “We’ve got the best defense in the league and (at that point), it’s a wrap in my mind (and the game is over). It’s a huge swing.”
But the Ravens gave Roethlisberger (24 of 33, 279 yards) just a little too much time to put together a game-saving, 75-yard drive.
“They made great throws, catches, he got of the pocket and made some plays,” Harbaugh said. “It was just playmaking. You’ve got to come up with plays against him (Roethlisberger). We came out with interceptions early, but we were unable to do that in the fourth quarter.
The key plays on the final drive were throws of 20 yards to Eli Rogers and 16 yards to Jesse James, and the TD to Brown, who had six catches for 73 yards just in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t blink, even through adversity,” Brown said.
The game — dominated by Baltimore since the Steelers’ initial drive — flipped early in the fourth quarter on a 35-yard pass interception penalty on cornerback Tavon Young against just activated Steelers wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, who hadn’t caught a pass all season though he did later in the quarter.
“I told him I’m calling this play, just run, and he ran by the guy,” Roethlisberger said.
The key penalty gave the Steelers a first down at the Ravens’ 15, and an 8-yard flip to Bell and Bell’s 7-yard power run made it 20-17 Ravens with 11:48 remaining.
“They did a great job with their tempo, they were in their two minute (offense) and going fast,” Harbaugh said.
After a Ravens three-and-out, Roethlisberger quickly drove the Steelers 90 yards for another go-ahead touchdown — one of three such TDs in the frantic fourth — led by Bell runs of 23 and 13 yards and throws of 21 and 26 yards to Brown on successive plays against a suddenly back-pedaling Ravens defense.
Again, Bell found the end zone from 7 yards out, on a short pass by Roethlisberger, to put the Steelers ahead with 7:27 remaining as Heinz Field — eerily quiet at times as the Ravens dominated the middle two quarters — erupted with a playoff-like burst of noise.
“It was a lot louder out there than usual,” Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers won their sixth in a row after dropping four straight and now will finish the season next Sunday against the Cleveland Browns (1-14) in a meaningless game. The Ravens finish up against Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh, which had dropped six of seven to its biggest rival, opened up a 7-0 lead on Roethlisberger’s 20-yard touchdown throw to tight end Xavier Grimble midway through the first period, only to see its offense effective shut down after that until the 21-point fourth quarter surge.
“I think only had only nine pass attempts in the first half, and we couldn’t get anything moving,” Roethlisberger said.
A Roethlisberger-thrown interception made by undrafted linebacker Zachary Orr in the third quarter quickly led to Flacco’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith and a subsequent 2-point conversion throw to Smith, who had seven catches for 79 yards. Tight end Dennis Pitta caught eight passes for 75 yards.
Another Roethlisberger-thrown interception, by Mosely, led to one of four Justin Tucker field goals. But this one wasn’t over — far from it.
“We didn’t do a lot early,” Roethlisberger said. “But the fourth quarter was big for us.”
About as big as it gets.