There's a fine line between gritty and ugly. The Ravens and Steelers crossed it on Sunday night. Their rivalry has always been gritty. But Sunday's Ravens-Steelers game wasn't just beaten with an ugly stick; the whole ugly tree fell on its roof.
The Steelers wore their horizontal-striped Blind Melon tribute uniforms as a warning to viewers of what was to come. Football teams wore getups like those in the 1920s, which is why F. Scott Fitzgerald drank so much. The stripes are awful enough, but no one has given the cream-colored pants their due. The jerseys try so hard; the pants just give up. Worst of all, they mismatch to the point of distraction, and the color is creepy, like Memorial Day flesh at the Jersey Shore. The pants make white players look naked and black players look like naked white players. It's ugly.
Before fans could adjust to the uniforms, on the third play of the game, Byron Leftwich took off from the pocket and began sprinting up the sideline like a trashcan lid rolling along a county road in a stiff wind. No one was more shocked to find Leftwich at a full gallop than Leftwich, who kept looking around to make sure he hadn't gotten mixed up and ran the wrong way. Leftwich ran out of gas in the end zone, tripped over his own flailing limbs, and injured his own shoulder, guaranteeing that he would somehow look more rickety and awkward for the next 58 minutes than he had in his previous decade of leading offenses the way oxcarts led flagellants through medieval cities.
But then the Ravens unleashed their road offense, also known as their special teams. When the Ravens' offense is struggling, which is often, it looks like they aren't even putting any thought into it. Ray Rice gets fed to the line a few times, Joe Flacco throws a bomb five yards over Torrey Smith's head and everyone hits the bench. On the first drive of the third quarter, Rice carried three times: gain of eight, gain of one, no gain. Punt. This is called "diminishing returns." And yet, the Ravens led 10-7 at that point, thanks to a punt return touchdown and a Mike Wallace fumble into Ed Reed's magnetic hands in field goal range.
Leftwich threw wobbly passes out of bounds. He threw fluttering passes that looked like sliders in the dirt. Flacco threw screens to receivers surrounded by bumble bees. The Steelers punted on seven straight possessions, never gaining more than 18 yards from scrimmage, before Leftwich broke up the monotony with an interception to Corey Graham. A brief fight broke out after the pick. These two teams don't like each other. Or perhaps they don't like what they've become when they are with each other. Flacco capitalized on the Graham pick by throwing a bomb five yards over Anquan Boldin's head, but the Ravens managed a field goal.
Rain started falling at some point. Rain usually makes defensive battles look dramatic and timeless (see last week's Bears-Texans game). The Ravens and Steelers just looked soggy. The Steelers got grass stains on their panties-and-hose-in-one.
NBC used a light trail to trace Leftwich's famous eephus-pitch delivery. The trail made long, elegant loops on the screen, like the grand signature of some silent film star. Finally, the world got to see what Ecstasy users see when Leftwich throws, and it is a vast improvement. Leftwich added to the psychedelia by throwing some passes sidearm, under-handing others, breaking out a lacrosse racket once or twice. The improvisational throws kept the chains moving and reminded us how Leftwich has survived in the first place: He is smart, prepared, canny and competitive. He is gritty, but ugly. And when he throws overhand, waiting for his passes to arrive is like waiting for suburban light rail after closing time.
Flacco, on the other hand, mistakes the pass rush for an approaching T-Rex and figures that it cannot see him if he doesn't move. Playing the Steelers on the road, John Harbaugh might as well draw the third-down plays up as sacks. Flacco took a sack on third-and-two with the Steelers out of timeouts after the two-minute warning. Ray Rice was not injured. The Ravens just like doing things like that.
Leftwich got one last chance. He delivered a strike to Heath Miller, but it arrived late, and Graham knocked the ball away. He threaded one to Emmanuel Sanders near the sideline, but it arrived late, and Bernard Pollard walloped Sanders to break up the pass. The third-down snap rolled to Leftwich, who gobbled it up, waddled away from pressure, wound up, wound up some more, kept winding up, and finally launched the football to a random spot on the field. Fourth down brought pitch-play silliness, but the hard hits and near misses of the early downs recalled Steelers-Ravens glory. For a few seconds, the Ravens' 13-10 victory was beautifully gritty.
But for most of the game, it was ugly.