For the second time in three years, the Baltimore Ravens have proven that December momentum is overrated entering the postseason.
John Harbaugh's troops played their best all-around game in three months, ending their archrival's season with a convincing 30-17 victory in Pittsburgh.
To provide context, Roethlisberger had been sacked just twice in the previous four games behind a steadily improving offensive line.
Not to be overshadowed, Joe Flacco continued his postseason excellence, leading his offense on six scoring drives without a punt after the opening possession.
"Joe Flacco, what can you say? I think he had a perfect quarterback rating there in the third quarter." Harbaugh raved after the game. "That's playoff football. That's Joe Flacco. He is the best quarterback in football. We will take him any day of the week. Twice on Sunday or Saturday night, if that be the case."
Flacco now boasts an impeccable 13:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his last five playoff games. The majority of that handiwork came via the 2012-13 Super Bowl run on the heels of four allegedly deflating December losses.
Saturday's impressive win leaves the Harbaugh-Flacco duo with an 11-4 postseason record, notching at least one victory in each of their six playoff appearances.
That's an unsettling prospect for a Patriots team that has been fortunate to escape with one victory in the previous three matchups.
Here's what else you need to know from Wild Card Saturday:
- If Baltimore's front can play like this again, could they potentially upend the Patriots next Saturday? New England's singular glaring weakness right now may be their inability to slow down some of the NFL's elite fronts, especially when those fronts show a steady stream of exotic blitzes. Watch the camera angle from behind Ben Roethlisberger when he throws one of his two game-ending picks. That is, quite simply, a quarterback's worst nightmare.
- Is it fair to say we expected more from the Steelers' defensive line Saturday? When the conversation shifts to Joe Flacco's mobility -- which is, actually, better than expected -- one has to wonder if James Harrison and Jason Worilds left some sacks out there. Harrison was heads up on the first undrafted free agent rookie to start a game at left tackle in NFL playoff history. Although it might be tough to compare given that Baltimore had some obvious passing downs to tee off on, we expected a more complex blitz package like we saw during the team's last matchup in November.
- Kelvin Beachum's holding call with a little more than four minutes to go in the fourth quarter eliminated any bounce that was left in Heinz Field. Believing that Dri Archer had just scored, putting Pittsburgh within a touchdown and two-point conversion, the Steelers heard from their crowd for the first time in almost an hour. Two plays later, Bruce Gradkowski was in at quarterback for a third-and-21.
- Wondering if Dean Pees is maybe just a year or two past the age where he could get some legitimate head coaching interviews. The Ravens' defensive coordinator, who, by the way, has been coaching against Roethlisberger since college, had an ideal situation laid out in front of him, but still unfolded some diabolical blitzes that won the game. Save for one possession where his defense was caught in Tampa 2 with Antonio Brown running behind three defenders, it was a solid game plan. Also, while we're on the subject of Ravens coordinators, what do we make of Gary Kubiak's performance? His running game may have been less dependable than Pittsburgh's on Saturday night, but still did a nice job of organizing his protections. We saw Forsett step up nicely on a few.
- The lack of Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh's offense was no more pronounced on the team's first drive when Ben Tate got five snaps and the start. As many times as Pittsburgh went with an empty set, they had plenty of max protect situations and relied on Antonio Brown to get separation in a vast, talented secondary. Max protect with a bad running game is a lose-lose situation that isn't going to win you playoff games. Pittsburgh really needed a running back that knew the passing game who could beat a linebacker in single coverage and provide an outlet.
- The Panthers enjoyed an edge of more than 300 yards and cruised to victory despite a subpar game from Cam Newton and the special teams. As they are wont to do several times per season, Newton's throwing mechanics were a blatant mess. He failed to get his lower body involved, leading to an assortment of misfires and an interception. The special teams contributed a missed field goal and a lost fumble, keeping Arizona close through the middle of the third quarter. The game tilted heavily in Carolina's favor in a four-drive stretch that featured a missed pass interference call on Michael Floyd, a bobbled punt return by the Panthers, a 43-yard screen pass touchdown to Fozzy Whittaker and a fumbled kickoff return by Ted Ginn.
- The Cardinals are a well-coached, mentally tough team that never had a legitimate shot with Ryan Lindley at quarterback. Owner of the lowest career passer rating entering the playoffs in the past 30 years, Lindley was a liability from start to finish. Arizona became the first team in the Super Bowl era to be held under 100 total yards in a playoff game. Lindley went nearly two full quarters from the start of the second to the end of the third without a single pass for positive yards. The Cardinals managed an embarrassing 1.8 yards via the pass as well as the run.
- Don't let the opposing quarterback fool you. The Panthers' defense has been playing lights-out football for six weeks. If not for a Newton interception and a Brenton Bersin fumble, the Cardinals would have been shut out. Luke Kuechly intercepted Lindley once and tipped another pass into Tre Boston's hands for another pick. Thomas Davis was all over the field, pitching in a pair of tackles for loss. With rangy undrafted rookie Adarius Glanton picking up snaps, this is the fastest linebacker corps in the NFL, bolstered by a revamped run-and-hit secondary featuring athletic cover corner Josh Norman and rookie standoutBene' Benwikere. Throw in Charles Johnson turning opposing offensive tackles into turnstyles over the past two months, and this defense is as imposing of any outside of CenturyLink Field. As long as Newton irons out his throwing motion, this team will be far from a pushover at Seattle or Green Bay next week.
- Just as he did in shutting down a white-hot, record-breaking DeMarco Murray earlier this season, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles switched from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 in hopes of corralling Jonathan Stewart. It didn't work. One of the NFL's best backs over the past six weeks, Stewart showed impressive burst, making defenders miss while carrying Carolina's offense. DeAngelo Williams didn't give Stewart a breather until the fourth quarter.
- If this is Larry Fitzgerald's final game with the Cardinals' organization, he deserved a better sendoff. Mired in quarterback hell with Kevin Kolb, Max Hall, John Skelton and Lindley since Kurt Warner's retirement, Fitzgerald's artificially deflated numbers belie his Hall of Fame-level greatness. One play after Lindley missed him wide open in the end zone, Fitzgerald nearly carried multiple defenders over the goal line for a score. He came to play Saturday.
- One issue that looms for the Divisional Round is the loss of playmaking No. 3 receiver Philly Brown to a shoulder injury. A gadget player and deep threat, Brown provided the only speed element in Newton's aerial attack. Credit offensive coordinator Mike Shula for compensating by featuring Whittaker's wheels on the long screen-pass touchdown.
- Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is a team-building wizard. With hands tied by the salary-cap woes of the previous regime, he cobbled together a division winner in 2013 by signing after-market free agents and drafting a pair of "hog mollies" at defensive tackle. Still haunted by the cap sins of the past, he was forced to try the same tack this past offseason. The result is seven rookies playing prominent roles as the surging Panthers advance to the Divisional Round in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.