Rising above the hype…

Every once in a while, in this increasingly hyped sports world we live in, an otherwise mundane event rises up and commands notice.  We focus on the NFL regular season, week 13…Browns vs. Steelers.

I remember sitting in my easy chair, channel-surfing and hearing the distant echoes of an old Bruce Springsteen song in my head (“…57 channels and nothing on…”) when the ESPN sports ticker jolted me back to reality:  there’s an NFL game going on!  It turned out to be a classic rivalry game:  Cleveland at Pittsburgh, courtesy of the new NFL network, broadcasting live from Heinz Field on a cold but clear Pittsburgh night.  Regardless of how one feels about Ben Roethlisburger and his recently-publicized off-the-field exploits, the guy is as tough as they come and showed it again by shaking off the pain of a high-ankle sprain to lead his team to victory.  Sure, Cleveland’s recent road record against the Steelers is absolutely woeful…the last time the Browns tasted victory in the Steel City, it was the year 2003.  To put a time stamp on it, Roy Horn was in a Las Vegas hospital recuperating from the tiger attack 48 hours earlier that permanently ended the Siegfried & Roy show.   A bit closer to home, Browns fans may also remember Tim Couch running and passing his team to a 33-13 win, posting gaudy 20-for-25 throwing stats in the process.  I may be leaving a few others out, but Charlie Batch is the one guy who comes to mind that played roles in both of these games, although the scenarios were totally different:  Eight years ago, Batch, the Criminal Justice major who shattered almost every passing record while at Eastern Michigan University, relieved an ineffective Tommy Maddox late in the game.  By that time the Browns were already comfortably ahead.  Although the Pittsburgh skies were clear that night, Maddox was getting rained on by a chorus of boos from the Steeler faithful.  Bill Cowher had finally seen enough and made the change, which amounted to not much more than some relief pitcher mop-up work for Batch in a blowout loss.

Back to the present.  Batch, who has grown accustomed to his role as a pretty good backup to Big Ben over the years, entered the scene midway through the second quarter.  As we’ve seen numerous times throughout his career, Big Ben’s ability to elude pass rushes and buy precious seconds to find an open receiver downfield is what generates big plays in the Steeler offense.  This time, however, there was no dramatic completion.  Instead, the qb wound up on the ground in grimacing pain, his left ankle grossly twisted under 585 pounds of mass — the combined weight of the high-low hit administered by Cleveland DT’s Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering.

And down.

Goes.

Frazier.

With 5:59 to go in the 2nd quarter, whoosh goes the air of excitement from the Heinz Field faithful, as a hush falls upon the crowd.  He was helped up by his teammates and the trainer, who together half-carried the limping star to a waiting cart.  Exit Roethlisburger to the locker room for x-rays.  All appearances suggested the rest of the night would be won or lost by Pittsburgh’s native son, Charlie Batch.  More importantly, the entire Steeler season was now in doubt.

The halftime show’s entire focus was appropriately centered on the injury and how serious it was.  Clearly, Pittsburgh’s postseason run would be put in serious jeopardy without Roethlisburger at the helm.  Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Steve Mariucci were convinced Ben was through for the night.  More importantly to their push for postseason success, Mariucci predicted the Pittsburgh coaching staff’s primary focus would be on getting their qb ready in ten days for the Monday night showdown against the revitalized 49ers.  As for tonight, they would likely adjust the game-plan on the fly to help Batch conservatively manage the offense and nurse a slim 7-3 lead.  Right before the game crew cut to commercials and the start of the second half, Marshall Faulk became the only talking head of the night to say it would not surprise him one bit to see Ben back on the field and in the lineup.  The others looked at him like he was out of his mind.

Back in the locker room, we don’t know what was said, but it was probably something to the effect of “tape it up.  I’m going back out there.”  We do know after the game Ben said the injury “was one of the most painful things I ever felt.  It felt like the middle of my leg was just, cracked … it felt like my foot was outside of my leg.”  (Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/gameflash/2011/12/08/4595/index.html#ixzz1gASKUMCQ)

Charlie Batch’s helmet stayed off in the second half as a very gimpy Roethlisburger emerged from the locker room to a thunderous roar from the 65,000 + faithful at Heinz Field.  The Steelers took the opening kickoff by attempting a reverse that failed miserably and started the offense deep in their own territory.  Ben couldn’t pivot on his left foot to execute a simple handoff, but he did the best he could, and an energized Steeler offense helped.  Four out of their first five plays from scrimmage were Rashard Mendenhall runs of 7, 5, 11 and 4 yards, but the initial 2nd-half drive drive fizzled near midfield when Antonio Brown couldn’t hold onto a 3rd-and-13 pass.

The rest of the game featured a healthy dose of Mendenhall runs interspersed with Roethlisburger somewhat effectively distributing the ball in the air.  All told, he threw for 280 yards on the night, primarily to wideouts Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who are injecting the Steeler offense with a healthy dose of speed and youth.   Early in the fourth quarter, Wallace had a nice catch-and-run to the 2, but Cleveland’s defense rose up with a stunning goal-line stand…four times, the give was to 43.  And four times, the  Browns defense rose up to stop Mendenhall.  (Woulda, coulda, shoulda:  Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for it on 4th down and risk taking points off the board — the score was 7-3 at the time — was a questionable one.  The flip side of this illustrates the confidence he has in Dick Lebeau’s defense, which kept the Browns in check all night.)  Defenses dominated the middle part of the 2nd half and the score remained the same.  With 7:10 to go in the game, a chink in the Pittsburgh armour brought the Cleveland fans to their feet:  Roethlisburger’s throw to Heath Miller was picked off by safety Mike Adams at the Steeler 44-yard line.  Two plays later, Colt McCoy eluded the initial pass rush, moved to his left and completed a pass in the flat to Montario Hardesty.  But McCoy paid the price in a big way, courtesy of a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from James Harrison that laid the second-year qb flat on the Heinz Field turf.   The resulting 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Browns the ball at the 19 with a great opportunity to take the lead, but all the dazed and confused McCoy could do was stand and watch.  His replacement, Seneca Wallace, connected on two straight completions, the second to Evan Moore at the Steeler 5.  Browns fans across the land could smell victory.  Dick LeBeau’s D was reeling.  Coach Pat Shurmer’s opportunity to pull off a big road win and upset their bitter rival was here.  This was football drama between two division rivals at its regular-season best.  What would happen next — a backup qb saving the day for Cleveland?  Not so fast….viewers were then treated to the sight of McCoy running back into the game (much to the chagrin of his dad, who later made clear his displeasure with this decision).  This was the closest the Browns would get.  The next play, Colt was running like a quarter horse to escape another all-out pit-bull rush from the ever-present Harrison.  (Not sure if there’s anyone in the NFL who intimidates qb’s more.)  He got rid of the ball but was flagged for intentional-grounding:  Now it’s 3rd-and-goal from the 16.  This time, McCoy has time.  He sets up in the pocket, looks left, then throws to Mohamed Massaquoi, who is open a step ahead of William Gay in the left corner of the end zone.  The pass was slightly off-target and Gay closed the gap to make a leaping interception.  Thunderous roar at Heinz Field.  Capture the moment:  Gay stands with arms held aloft, his prize possession in one hand, facing the crowd and grinning.

With Pittsburgh back on offense, Roethlisburger, who had been pacing back and forth on the sidelines to keep the ankle from further stiffening, could barely walk and made another errant throw.  Up in the TV booth, Phil Simms said what most of us were already feeling:  the ineffective, injured qb shouldn’t be out there.  In the end, it was poetry in motion:  an absolutely improbable Roethlisburger-to-Antonio Brown 79-yard TD catch-and-run with 2:52 to go that sealed the deal, 14-3.  Game, set and match.

Just don’t ask Colt McCoy to relive it, as he doesn’t remember anything from 5:49 on, the point at which James Harrison’s helmet-t0-helmet hit put him temporarily on the sidelines.  Two plays later, the Browns coaches deemed him fit to go back in.  (Concussion awareness training, anyone?)

All in all, this game was the real deal.  Tough, gutsy play on both sides of the ball, which this storied rivalry always promises.  Goal-line stands.  Questionable coaching decisions.  Yet another acrobatic Troy Polamalu interception.  The sick speed of Antonio Brown.  One of those nights that leaves an NFL fan feeling thoroughly satisfied.  Especially if you’re a Steelers fan.

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