Another North lesson

PITTSBURGH - What did we learn here Saturday night at Heinz Field?

No, besides the fact that watching the Ravens play the Steelers in a playoff game is as sickening as botulism if you live and die with the Bengals?

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said when he was rehired earlier this month that he is evaluating everything from coaching to personnel to scheme as his team tries to understand how it went from sweeping these teams in 2009 to beating them just once this past season as part of the 4-12 collapse. He can use some clips from Saturday's latest AFC North demolition derby to show his team it can still beat either one.

If...

"We stayed the course," said wide receiver Hines Ward after his Steelers overcame two first-half turnovers in the 31-24 victory, "and we found a way to win."

Resiliency, Lewis no doubt noted, was on display. After beating the Ravens in the second week of the season without making a turnover, the Bengals lost the next three to these two without an answer for 10 turnovers.

Lewis, who wants his passing game to be more vertically aggressive, can also show his team how Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger mixed up his screens and slants and kept pitching deep, particularly on the game-breaking 58-yard bomb to wide receiver Antonio Brown on third-and-19 at the two-minute warning.

And this is the reason why Lewis has deep thoughts:

"I think they weighed their options and said it's not a very risky play," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. "If they don't get it, they can get a pass interference call. I think they got an illegal contact call and they completed the pass. I think that was their mindset. Throw the ball up a bit and even if it's picked off, it's a punt."  

Too bad his team didn't have the same mindset. Flacco's Ravens showed what happens when you A) don't try to go deep against a good defense and B) when you can't. The Baltimore wideouts were handcuffed to the Pittsburgh DBs as he threw just eight times to his two leading receivers for a mere one catch. And that was a two-yard loss to Anquan Boldin. The only time Flacco really went deep, he got a 33-yard pass interference call for Derrick Mason that set up a touchdown. Mason didn't have a catch and the penalty was double the longest pass to a wide receiver.

Then, there was also that reminder that Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham must be used as a bigger weapon in this AFC North arms race. Steelers tight end Heath Miller and Ravens tight end Todd Heap (with a pick from wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh) each caught red-zone touchdowns Saturday against relentless defenses that don't give any room down there.

"This is the time of year," Miller said, "when you have to score touchdowns instead of field goals." 

And say what you want about Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski (and we know you will), but one of the things he has done well is protect quarterback Carson Palmer against these werewolves. Saturday was a bad episode of Twilight. The winning quarterback got sacked six times, three times by Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, a man possessed. Flacco hit the deck five times with a hat trick by Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.

Eleven sacks. The Bengals gave up eight sacks against the Steelers and Ravens this season, so the game's MVP might have been Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, yet to give up a sack against Suggs and Harrison in 11 games against them as a left tackle.

But if we learned anything Saturday it's that even if you're the big, bad Ravens, those purple vampires that have feasted on the mistakes of the NFL for the past decade, you can't turn it over. Lewis has the perfect minicamp clip … if there is a minicamp.

The Ravens literally turned over to the Steelers a berth in next week's AFC title game when they watched a 21-7 halftime lead dissolve in just the nine minutes it took to fumble away a catch, throw a pick, and fumble the simple center exchange.

A game like that can leave the Bengals wondering if they're thisclose. Or  that  far  away.

What we do know is that the Ravens' offensve chiefs, under as much heat as the ones in Bengaldom, are going to get chewed or maybe worse. Despite having a double-digit lead heading into the second half, the Ravens passed on five of their first seven plays. Bad things happen when teams keep trying to throw against Pitsburgh.    

But maybe we're making it all too complicated. As Heath Miller observed, "Funny things happen in these (division) games. It shows you how even we are … it's just a couple of plays either way."

Funny as in weird. Who is more impervious to the Heinz pressure-cooker than Houshmandzadeh as a former Bengal who once wiped his cleats on a Terrible Towel walking off the field here with a Cincinnati win? Who has better hands in the NFL after 10 seasons of 600-plus catches on guile and glue?

But it was Houshmandzadeh who dropped the Ravens' last chance, a fourth-and-18 pass just over the first-down sticks in front of cornerback William Gay at about the Pittsburgh 35 with 1:03 left. Caught  between catching it with his body or hands, he used neither and the Ravens season ended on one of those routine things that always decides the biggest games in this division.

"It's unbelievable; I can't believe that happened," Houshmandzadeh said. "I would bet every dollar I had that I make that. I can't ever recall dropping a ball when the team needed a play. I always wanted that play and … wow. It's almost like it's not real. I can't believe it. I jumped up and I was indecisive on whether I was going to catch the ball with my hands or my body and it was too late."

Miller admitted it surprised him, too.

"But who would predict you complete a third-and-19 with two minutes left?" Miller asked. "You look at last year. Cincinnati was really good and we were 9-7 and now this year they had pretty much the same team with even a few more guys and if they had made just a few more plays, they would have had a much better year."

Which plays?

Houshmandzadeh was reminded that when the Bengals lost to the Ravens two weeks ago, they had a couple of shots from the 2 to beat them in the last 30 seconds. Back in Cincinnati in November, the Bengals were within six of the Steelers in the last 34 seconds when rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley dropped a fourth-down ball at the Pittsburgh 4. Some say Palmer didn't pull the trigger quick enough or Shipley hurried the route a bit, or that Harrison simply made a great play in space.

"They're lucky sometimes, but when you're a good team, the ball bounces your way," Houshmandzadeh said. "In these games you can look back and say it was a handful of plays. Now I've got one of the five."

And there was the third-and-19. The Ravens rushed three, dropped eight, and for one of the few times all day, Suggs didn't beat a one-on-one.

"Defensive ends, it's a prevent defense. It's third-and-19, you can give up 18 … but somehow we gave up the deep one," Suggs said.

One play. Five plays. Lewis can use this tape. It could have been the Bengals. It has been them.

"I didn't really come into the game disliking Pittsburgh that much," Houshmandzadeh said. "I hate them with a passion now."

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