BALTIMORE - For any team besides the Pittsburgh Steelers, the situation couldn't have been much bleaker.
They trailed Baltimore by three points with 3:36 remaining. What would likely be Pittsburgh's final offensive possession was beginning at the Steelers 8-yard line. The unit was surrounded by deafening noise from a hostile, record-setting crowd of 71,502 fans at M&T Bank Stadium. And for a realistic shot at tying the score with a field goal, the Steelers had to gain at least 60 yards against a vicious Ravens defense that had already forced two turnovers and not allowed a touchdown.
In other words, Pittsburgh had the Ravens right where it wanted them.
The 2008 Steelers have made a habit out of dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks, but this one tops them all. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger worked his magic once again Sunday, leading the game-winning drive that gave the Steelers a 13-9 victory and clinched the AFC North title.
"He had the eye of the tiger," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "He was locked in that zone. He knew what he needed to do."
What he did was brilliant. Roethlisberger completed seven of 11 passes as the Steelers picked up 89 of 92 yards in the air. He capped the series with a four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes on a third down with 43 seconds remaining. Pittsburgh's defense then did the rest. Steelers cornerback William Gay intercepted a Joe Flacco pass in the waning seconds to secure the 17th — and arguably greatest — fourth-quarter comeback of Roethlisberger's four-plus NFL seasons.
"What it's been about for us, especially on offense, is just persevering and pushing through," said Roethlisberger, proudly sporting a gray AFC North champions cap during his post-game news conference. "Whether it's playing a great defense, [in bad] weather or whatever, we've found a way to get it done."
This victory wasn't without controversy. Holmes was initially ruled down at the Ravens 1-yard line, but referee Walt Coleman awarded the touchdown after an instant replay review. Coleman ruled that Holmes had caught the football inside the goal-line plane before being pushed out of the end zone by Ravens safety Ed Reed.
"He didn't get in," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, echoing the thoughts of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "But they called it the way they called it."
This much is indisputable: The play was vintage Roethlisberger. When his first two receiving options (wide receiver Hines Ward and running back Mewelde Moore) were covered, Roethlisberger scrambled left to buy more time for someone to spring open. Running for the touchdown wasn't an option with Ravens defenders quickly closing.
"I scrambled back to the right because you know I hold onto the ball too long," said Roethlisberger, making a tongue-in-cheek reference to a criticism of his playing style. "The [offensive] line cleaned everybody up and I saw Santonio ... I was about half a second from throwing it away."
The Steelers (11-3) have spent most of this season living on the edge. Six of their victories have come by seven points or less, including last Sunday's 20-13 home win against Dallas that featured a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback. Even with Flacco floundering in an 11-of-28, two interception performance, Baltimore's defense and special teams were so sharp that the Ravens (9-5) didn't trail until Roethlisberger's touchdown throw. Roethlisberger was only 12-of-23 passing for 116 yards through the first three quarters and opened the fourth by losing a fumble when sacked-and-stripped by Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
"You don't have to make every play in the first three quarters," Holmes said. "You've got to make the plays when they really count."
Besides leading to wins, Pittsburgh's resiliency has helped create a tight bond among Steelers players.
"This is a special team," Roethlisberger said. "I told the guys during our pregame prayer, 'I feel this team is as close as I've ever been a part of since our Super Bowl year [in 2005].'
"There's something about us. No matter when things go bad or who's struggling, we always stay together."
The Steelers are now guaranteed of staying together for at least one post-season game. The odds of reaching Super Bowl XLIII will be even greater if Pittsburgh can secure the AFC's top playoff seed by winning their final two regular-season games against host Tennessee (12-2) and visiting Cleveland (4-9).
"This only builds our confidence for the battles that lie ahead," Starks said. "We know when we get into a tight situation we can trust our brothers. There's no need to ever get down or frustrated. You just get more and more determined as time starts to tick away."
Said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: "I don't know that we had the confidence to do this. I think there was an overwhelming sense that, 'We have to do this.' That's how we play. Our quarterback wants to be the man to deliver them."
Roethlisberger is doing exactly that — and now he has a division title to show for it.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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