Less than a month ago, the late NFL game on Thanksgiving night featured the “Battle of the Brothers.” For the first in pro football history, two head coach brothers brought their teams to the field, with the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh trying to out-coach and out-game face his brother, San Francisco 49er head coach Jim Harbaugh, in front of a turkey-gorged national audience.
The story was made all the more poignant when former college coach—and father—Jack Harbaugh was invited into the television announcer’s booth to discuss his inner turmoil over seeing both of his boys playing out their parts in this gridiron Shakespearean scenario, their hardened game faces worn like masks in a pageant.
This was a holiday treat that sports dads across the country could only dream of. Both of Jack’s sons had winning records, with rookie coach Jim leading his upstart Niners to a division best 9-1 record and stalwart AFC North coach John finally getting the better of his division rivals.
Weeks earlier, on November 6, the Ravens battled and bested their hated arch foes the Pittsburgh Steelers, sweeping the season and giving the Ravens the tie breaker in the case of identical win-loss totals. Upon winning, a few Baltimore players showered their coach with a Gatorade bath— which is seldom employed for regular season wins. Rarely has a team christened their leader in the orange power juice with nary a division won or post-season birth secured.
Tough guy coach John Harbaugh revealed his “happy” game face, a slight smirk creasing his lips, illustrating victory in all it’s glory. The perpetually “almost there” quarterback Joe Flacco, having played like Joe Montana and looking like George Michael with the questionable-at-best long-stache, walked tall after burning the Steelers secondary for a late game winning drive.
Ray Lewis huffed over to the sideline, hand-slapping his teammates and asserting “that’s championship football” over and over. The defense, led by Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, sauntered off the field after finally wining at home and the frozen Heinz Field.
The scene, however, was an odd one for an organization of brutally tough men who have their eyes on winning games in February, not November. But their enemy had fallen and the Ravens looked downright giddy. The scene looked closer to that of a team either going to or having just won a Super Bowl, not a mid season divisional match-up.
The Ravens celebrated like they hadn’t been there and didn’t care because they knew they had the division knitted up like a Christmas sweater. Until last night.
Last night, under bright lights and in front of a national television audience, the Ravens saw their playoff hopes start to unravel before their eyes. In the calm and quaint hamlet of San Diego and with a nice Pacific breeze blowing across their faces, a schizophrenic Chargers club—led by the alternating hot seat/hot hand coach Norv Turner—bludgeoned the Ravens and jarred loose, if only for a night, home field advantage over the Steelers in the playoffs.
Coach John Harbaugh hastened from the Kentucky blue grass of Qualcomm Stadium with his game face in “sad” mode, as the pall of defeat hung in the air—along with the smoke from so many of San Diego’s signature canon ball blasts that celebrated score after score.
Tonight, a similar scene. Another west coast night game on a national stage. The air again thick, this time with San Francisco fog as a Harbaugh prowls the sidelines. This time, Monday Night Football. The San Francisco 49ers bring their 10-3 record into Candlestick to line up against the black and blue Pittsburgh Steelers.
With a first round bye within reach, Coach Mike Tomlin will attempt to fashion a win out of a patchwork team and stop Captain Comeback—a name Harbaugh carried while quarterbacking the Colts in the 90’s—from giving his brother an early Christmas present by defeating the Steelers.
Tomlin brings a banged-up and aging squad into a raging and hostile environment. Ben Roethlisberger, listed as questionable throughout the week, is reportedly starting the game, after nursing a gnarly grade one high-ankle sprain that has had him limping around Steeler facilities in a safety boot most of the week. He’ll be chased all night by the 49ers second-ranked defense, without the support of his second year Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey, the emotional metronome of the offensive line, is out with a similar high-ankle sprain, sustained in the same game a last Sunday. Additionally, break-out wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is out, most likely propelling veteran Hines Ward back into a more prominent role.
To thicken the plot, the Steelers will be relying on sack-leader LaMarr Woodley, who is attempting to return after missing most of the last five games with a hamstring setback. He’ll be without Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, suspended for a game due to his brutal hit on Brown’s quarterback Colt McCoy.
Coming off a four game win streak and wins in eight of their last nine games, the black and gold will put Coach Tomlin’s “the standard is the standard” policy to the test. Seasons aren’t made or broken in one game and tonight’s match-up will be no exception. But with two games left against teams with a combined tally of 6-22, the Steelers could effectively grasp a much needed first-round playoff bye and the rest that accompanies that scenario.
Rest assured, if the wobbling, hobbling Steelers are able to pull off a victory against a beastly San Francisco squad, there might be a “sad” game-faced Coach Harbaugh striding off the field, but there most-assuredly wont be a smiling, Gatorade soaked Coach Tomlin.