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Wild-Card Wrap-up: A Flag on the Play

A full slate of memorable NFL playoff games will end up being remembered for one thing: a call that wasn’t made.

The most memorable moment of this weekend’s playoff games, frustratingly, was also its most inexplicable. The bizarre decision by the officiating crew in the Dallas-Detroit game to overturn a pass interference call on Anthony Hitchens that would have given the Lions a key first down played a meaningful role in Dallas’s comeback. The Cowboys trailed 14-0 in the first quarter and had a win expectancy of 9 percent with 21 minutes left, only for Tony Romo to lead them back. The Cowboys took over after the non-call and went on an 11-play, 59-yard drive that yielded Romo’s game-winning touchdown pass to Terrance Williams.

Lions fans have a right to be miffed. But the idea that the game was somehow rigged? That’s absurd.

Let’s start with the call itself. As Mike Pereira noted in his analysis, the play itself is very clearly pass interference. Face guarding isn’t a penalty, but the first definition of pass interference includes “Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.” That’s exactly what Hitchens did to Brandon Pettigrew. Furthermore, even before Hitchens committed pass interference, he clearly grabbed Pettigrew’s jersey earlier in the route, which should have qualified for defensive holding and a first down.

Why was the flag picked up? As referee Pete Morelli noted after the game, back judge Lee Dyer saw pass interference and threw his flag, only for head linesman Jerry Bergman to overrule the call from what was supposedly a better angle, saying the contact had been minimal and represented face guarding.

Morelli doesn’t give a great explanation about why he announced the pass interference call before speaking to the head linesman and subsequently changing his mind. That’s not exactly common, but as someone who watches as much NFL as anybody, I can also say that a ref announcing a call and then subsequently changing it isn’t exactly unprecedented, either. I think that’s probably a huge chunk of why the call seems so egregious; if it were simply a blown pass interference call, I doubt there’s even half as much in the way of vitriol toward the officials, even if the decision is just as bad.

The whole thing speaks to a problem in the officiating process. We expect officials to huddle and debate what they saw from different vantage points a full minute after a play ends without the benefit of any replays, and the margin of error in that process is simply way too high. This happens a lot with intentional grounding calls, when officials are expected to reconstruct where every player was on the field 20 or 30 seconds after the play ends, and it’s just not possible to get that right every time.

There’s no easy way to legislate that out of the system short of turning every close call over to replay, and I doubt that’s a preferable option. A better step would be to expand the challenge system by allowing coaches to challenge judgment calls, a rule change proposed by Bill Belichick that I wrote about at length in March. That wouldn’t be perfect, and coaches would still screw up their challenges, but it would at least give coaches a way to operate against truly brutal mistakes like the one made by Morelli and his crew Sunday.

As for the issue of whether the call was proof that the game was rigged, remember Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. If NFL officials were perfect and screwed up this one call, it would be one thing, but this was hardly the only bad officiating moment of the weekend. Carolina, for one, benefited from an awful missed pass interference call on Michael Floyd and had a should-have-been intentional grounding on Cam Newton wiped off the board when the officials identified a mysterious receiver in the area. Bad calls happen. Sometimes, they happen in critical moments.

There’s also no reason to really believe that the NFL would benefit all that much from fixing a game in Dallas’s favor. Why would the league want to aid Jerry Jones, who the NFL sued in the mid-’90s? The same Jerry Jones who embarrassed the league by coming up 1,250 temporary seats short for Super Bowl XLV? I don’t doubt the league will be happy to see a Cowboys-Packers matchup next week, but how much benefit is it really going to see from the television ratings when the NFL’s TV deals run through 2022? NFL television ratings haven’t suffered any kind of noticeable drop-off this year. People are going to watch the NFL playoffs regardless of who’s actually involved. The upside to fixing a playoff game doesn’t remotely compare to what would happen if the league or a television network really wanted to influence the result of a playoff game and got caught.1


1.

The argument that NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino was spotted on a party bus with Jerry Jones’s son Stephen seems specious. Blandino was caught on the bus by TMZ. If he was ever going to decide a game in Dallas’s favor, would it really happen a few months after the TMZ report? If anything, wouldn’t that make it impossible for Blandino to ever think about fixing a game for the Cowboys, knowing that any sort of unlikely call in Dallas’s direction would lead onlookers directly to the TMZ story?

And the reality is that the decision hardly turned the game into a guaranteed victory for the Cowboys. Brian Burke’s win probability model noted that the call swung Detroit’s chances of winning by about 12 percentage points, as the Lions would have had a 79.4 percent chance of winning if the penalty had been enforced, only to settle for a 67.2 percent win expectancy after the flag was picked up. Burke notes that Detroit’s chances changed by about the same amount when Matthew Stafford hit Corey Fuller for a 21-yard completion earlier on the drive. It would be impossible to argue that the non-call didn’t help Dallas’s chances, but acting like a Cowboys win was fait accompli after the flag was picked up is just inaccurate.

The furor over the flag masks an impressive Dallas comeback and a frustratingly conservative game plan from Jim Caldwell, who was outcoached by Jason Garrett. Caldwell followed the Pettigrew flash point by lining up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Dallas 46-yard line solely in an attempt to force a Cowboys penalty. Stafford instead took a delay of game when the Cowboys didn’t jump, only for Sam Martin to deliver the worst shank in a weekend of truly awful punting. His 10-yard boot meant the Lions picked up only 5 yards of field position by taking the penalty and punting, a decision that would have been shortsighted and overly conservative even with a good punt.

Garrett, meanwhile, helped turn things around for the Cowboys with a pair of aggressive decisions. He likely would have been scolded by the take-the-points crowd had the Cowboys come up short on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the third quarter, but his decision to trust the league’s best running game against its most impressive run defense paid off when DeMarco Murray ran off-tackle for a touchdown. Then, on the game-winning drive, Garrett resisted the urge to punt on fourth-and-6 in no-man’s-land on the Detroit 42-yard line, with Romo promptly finding Jason Witten on an option route for 21 yards, which Witten later said was the biggest catch of his career. Both decisions were correct on paper,2 and Garrett got positive outcomes both times.


2.

I’ll spare you the math on fourth-and-goal from the 1, because that shouldn’t be anything new. Burke’s fourth-down calculator suggests Garrett should have gone for it on fourth-and-6 if he thought he had a 26 percent chance of converting. It’s not a perfect comparison, but teams converted third-and-6 in 14-points-or-less situations 41 percent of the time over the past five years.

The Lions basically battled the Cowboys running game to a draw, holding Murray to a 3.9-yard average on his 19 carries, but will feel let down by their secondary, especially given how well their pass rush played. The Lions combined for six sacks and 10 knockdowns of Romo on just 37 dropbacks, including four quarterback hits from a dominant Ezekiel Ansah and back-to-back sacks from Ndamukong Suh, who was reduced to tears during the postgame press conference after what might have been his last game as a Lions player.

Darius Slay did a great job shutting down Dez Bryant for most of the contest, but Rashean Mathis was slowed by a quad injury and the Lions had the lesser lights of their secondary fail to deliver. With 1:50 left in the first half and the Cowboys backed into a third-and-12 by a Williams offensive pass interference call, the Lions got burned for a touchdown when Cassius Vaughn slipped in coverage and Williams accelerated through the secondary for a 76-yard score. Mohammed Seisay, an undrafted free agent who wasn’t even a starter for Nebraska last season, was beaten badly by Cole Beasley on a number of occasions. The Lions asked too much of star linebacker DeAndre Levy, who repeatedly ended up following Bryant across the formation on crossing routes, with Bryant breaking one such route for a 43-yard completion that set up the Murray score.

Lions fans have every right to look back at this game and feel frustrated. They outplayed the Cowboys for most of the contest, and if they had managed to fall on one of Dallas’s two early fumbles deep in Cowboys territory, this could have been a game like the Cowboys’ Week 1 loss to the 49ers, when Dallas went down 21-3 early on turnovers and never really recovered. At the same time, Detroit was really lucky to get a second shot at winning the game when DeMarcus Lawrence recovered a Stafford fumble in the final minutes and promptly fumbled himself, only for Lawrence to redeem himself by beating Riley Reiff for a game-sealing stripsack on fourth-and-3. The Lions are not going to be a better team next year if Suh and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin are elsewhere, and it would be a shocker if both were wearing Lions gear next September.

More than anything, they’ll look back at this loss and remember that terrible decision to pick up the pass interference penalty. I can’t blame them. Instead of focusing on some sort of misguided conspiracy, the blown call should strike a blow for legitimate changes to the process of making calls that eliminate as many future mistakes as possible. Officials — who, somehow, still aren’t full-time employees — will never be perfect. Let’s try to get them a whole lot closer anyway.

Wild Card Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts

Be Dalton

Andy Dalton never really had a chance. The oft-belittled playoff punch line became the first quarterback since Y.A. Tittle in 1963 to lose each of his first four playoff starts, going 18-of-35 for just 155 yards in a 26-10 loss to the Colts. It actually bumps up Dalton’s career playoff passer rating to 57.8, leaving him as the sixth-worst quarterback among those who have thrown at least 150 playoff passes and started their playoff careers after the merger.

It would be wrong to say Dalton played well. While he was pressured on 31.7 percent of his dropbacks, more than any other quarterback in the wild-card round, Dalton didn’t do a ton when he did have time. He finished with a QBR of just 20.0, the second-worst figure of the weekend. Dalton seemed to fluctuate between holding on to the football too long when he needed to get it out and getting it out too quickly in spots when he needed bigger plays. It’s hard to find the logic, say, in throwing a 4-yard slant to Rex Burkhead on third-and-7 in no-man’s-land, as Dalton did against a blitz on the opening drive.

And yet, there’s an important phrase in there: Dalton was throwing a slant to Rex freaking Burkhead. Burkhead got the Bengals going with an end-around on their opening play, and he was an early component of an offense that simply lacked for weapons. With Tyler Eifert out virtually all season and both A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham missing this playoff game with injuries, Dalton had nothing to work with.

Beyond Mohamed Sanu, who failed to have a monster game despite mostly being kept apart from Vontae Davis, Dalton had a comic group of targets. His top weapons at receiver were Burkhead — a halfback stuck at wide receiver out of desperation after catching seven passes in two years — and third-string tight end Ryan Hewitt. The likes of Cobi Hamilton, Greg Little, and Brandon Tate were desperation plays, and all eight of Dalton’s throws in their direction fell incomplete.

The Bengals responded to their lack of weaponry early by using six offensive linemen on the vast majority of their snaps, a move that worked brilliantly for the Patriots against the Colts during the regular season. It worked well on the Bengals’ first two drives, as they ran the ball eight times with either six or seven offensive linemen, producing 39 yards and a touchdown. After that, the jig was up; the Colts adjusted, and the Bengals never really did anything to build upon their success with the extra linemen, running seven more such plays for a total of 5 yards.

You could maybe blame offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for not building a scheme with more bells and whistles to try to distract the Colts, but there just wasn’t much there. Cincinnati’s three zone-read plays produced minus-3 yards. It ran an end-around to start the game and mixed in a flea flicker during the second half, but it would have been tough to ask too much of such an inexperienced group of receivers. ESPN Stats & Information notes that the Bengals tried only one screen, which seems lacking. More Jeremy Hill might have been nice, but Cincinnati’s combination of Hill and Gio Bernard ran the ball 16 times for just 53 yards. Indy’s defensive backs knocked away five passes and played like a group that simply wasn’t afraid it was going to get beat by the Cincinnati passing game.

Truthfully, the game shouldn’t even have been as close as it was, with the Bengals within one score for the first 37 minutes. The Colts left a number of big plays on the field early and could have ended the game before halftime. T.Y. Hilton had an ugly drop wipe away a likely touchdown after two beautiful throws from Andrew Luck hit him in the hands. An illegal block by Donte Moncrief wiped away a touchdown. A fumble by the otherwise-impressive Dan Herron prematurely ended a drive before halftime.

The Colts mostly did what they wanted because the Bengals had no way of dictating the flow of the game on defense. Cincinnati’s biggest problem this season has been a totally absent pass rush, and that was true in this game, sacking Luck just once on 46 dropbacks. They were able to knock Luck down on eight occasions, but outside of the occasional burst up the middle from Geno Atkins, the Bengals couldn’t take advantage of Anthony Castonzo and fill-in right tackle Joe Reitz. Cincinnati sent only 11 blitzes all game, and while the secondary did its best, it wasn’t enough. George Iloka got lost standing still on a double-move by Hakeem Nicks for 45 yards before taking a poor angle in coverage against Moncrief, who ran right by him for a 36-yard touchdown.

For Cincinnati, of course, this will raise the question of whether the Dalton–Marvin Lewis combination has gone as far as it will go. It’s possible to make cases on both sides. If you believe in the duo, you note that Dalton and Lewis have gone 40-23-1 over the past four seasons, the sixth-best record in football over that time frame. The only quarterbacks in league history to win more games during their first four seasons are Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Dan Marino, and Dalton’s been a competent quarterback, posting the league’s 20th-best QBR from 2011 to 2014. Cincinnati is also committed to him by virtue of the six-year, $96 million contract he signed before the season.

And yet, there’s a reason quarterbacks don’t really ever get the chance to lose four playoff games in a row to start their careers. It’s tough to pin each of the four playoff losses on him, but it’s not as if he’s done a ton in those games to put his team in a position to win. Otherwise, Dalton hasn’t really grown, with his numbers dropping across the board this season. Without Green, his star receiver, he was totally hopeless Sunday against a competent pass defense.

The Bengals could move on from Dalton this offseason without destroying their cap, although it would likely have to happen quickly. Cincinnati will owe Dalton a $4 million roster bonus if he’s on the team on the third day of the 2015 league year, but before then it could cut or trade him while paying the same $9.6 million on the 2015 cap that it would otherwise be paying Dalton to play. Cincinnati should have somewhere around $40 million in cap space to work with next year, so while it still needs to sign Green to an extension, it could absorb the cap hit of moving on from Dalton while acquiring a new quarterback.

Lewis, meanwhile, falls to 0-6 in the playoffs, having lost a pair of games before Dalton arrived in 2011. The only other coach in league history to go 0-6 in the playoffs was Jim E. Mora, which means Lewis is probably ready to deliver a famous press conference next year. He went conservative again Sunday, punting on that fourth-and-3 on the opening drive and costing his team 0.7 points in the process. Then again, given the talent gap between the two teams thanks to Cincinnati’s injuries on offense, Lewis could have been the most aggressive play-caller in football and it wouldn’t really have mattered.

I don’t think there’s anything innately different about Lewis and Dalton, that they have some weird habit or hidden inability to win in the playoffs that should lead the Bengals to get rid of them both, even if there isn’t much precedent for anybody being any worse in the playoffs than these two. I also wouldn’t blame Bengals fans for feeling like this was a team repeatedly smacking its head against the ceiling, that taking a roll of the dice on a new coach and quarterback might be preferable to winning 10 games and getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs every year. Cincinnati might eventually break through and get to another level, like the Cowboys did this year after three 8-8 seasons with Garrett at the helm. They’re also probably looking back right now and wishing they hadn’t stuck with Dalton and Lewis for another year.

Wild Card Playoffs - Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers

Life and Lind

The worst QBR of the weekend, as you might suspect, belonged to Ryan Lindley. The Arizona quarterback produced a 6.1 QBR at the helm of the worst offensive performance in the history of the NFL playoffs. After losing 19 yards on a useless game-ending lateral play, the Cardinals finished with just 78 yards of offense and averaged 1.7 yards per play, setting all-time playoff lows in both categories. The same Bengals offense I just mentioned that felt hopeless all game averaged more than two and a half times as many yards per play (4.3). And yet, in a game where they had as many drives end without a first down3 as first downs (eight on both counts), the Cardinals might have actually been able to win with a little more luck.


3.

Technically, I could cheat and say that they had 10 drives end without a first down because they had a one-play Hail Mary drive at the end of the first half and lost a drive on a fumbled kickoff, but let’s not exaggerate how bad the Cardinals were.

The blueprint for a Cardinals victory in this playoff game at Carolina was never going to involve a big — or even competent — day from Lindley. That was asking too much. The Cardinals needed some help, and in some ways they got it. They picked up an interception when Jerricho Cotchery appeared to hear a who and stopped his shallow crossing route, allowing Antonio Cromartie to pick off Cam Newton’s pass and return it 50 yards to set up a four-play scoring drive. They got help on special teams, where Brenton Bersin muffed away a punt that gave the Arizona offense a short field for its other touchdown; Graham Gano also pushed a field goal wide left.

On the right day, if you kill enough clock with your running game, win the field-position battle, and don’t make mistakes, that can be enough to win a football game. The problem is that the Cardinals didn’t play mistake-free football. Cromartie dropped a would-be pick-six on the opening drive. Ted Ginn took a ball out from 8 yards deep in his own end zone and fumbled on a Melvin White hit to set up a back-breaking Panthers touchdown. Drew Butler was the Ryan Lindley of punters, averaging a lowly 34.8 yards per punt on his nine attempts, including five punts that traveled 33 yards or fewer and a 20-yarder to start the game. The officials made three key calls against Arizona, including a missed defensive pass interference that would have represented Arizona’s biggest offensive play and a debatable defensive pass interference call in the end zone that extended a Carolina touchdown drive.

And, of course, the Cardinals needed a higher floor from their quarterback. Lindley threw two interceptions in Arizona territory in the fourth quarter, including a devastating pick that came after a Newton fumble that might have given the Cardinals some life. Lindley did his worst work in the red zone. He had Larry Fitzgerald open for an eternity up the seam early in the game and threw both late and high, and when Fitzgerald later got open on a similar route in the end zone, Lindley tried to squeeze it in for his second pick of the day.

In this game, for once, Bruce Arians tried to give in. Faced with an impossible scenario by virtue of Lindley’s presence, he tried to give his quarterback more conservative options. Lindley, who led the league in average air yards per pass, saw his throws travel a relatively modest 8.5 yards in the air per attempt on Saturday. The problem was that he had less of an idea of where those throws were going than Carolina’s defenders did. Lindley would repeatedly stare down his receivers, which allowed Carolina’s pair of Pro Bowl–caliber linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, to clog up his throwing lanes and force errant throws. When Carolina blitzed, they knew the hot reads Lindley would make and attacked them for easy takedowns. Lindley’s receivers averaged a playoff-low 2.4 yards after catch because he never threw or looked anybody open.

It was fair to wonder after the game whether Arians should have moved on from Lindley and given more playing time to rookie Logan Thomas, who came on the field for one read-option play. Lindley was awful, but I have to trust Arians, especially given that Arians tried to bench Lindley, gave Thomas a practice as the starter, and immediately went back to Lindley. Remember that this is the same NFL that knocked Teddy Bridgewater down to the bottom of the first round because he was bad on his pro day. Imagine how terrible Thomas had to have been in that practice for Arians to immediately go back to Lindley like he’d seen a ghost.

We’re going to hear stories of people passing that tape around for years to come, and the sort of filthy things I read on Twitter that Thomas must have done to Arians’s Kangol hat collection are unrepeatable on a family website. The rookie would have been a viable running threat if Arians wanted to run the zone-read all day, but it wouldn’t have been much of a game plan on its own, especially given that the Cardinals averaged just 1.8 yards per carry on their 15 rushes.

The one salvation for the Cardinals might have been a great game from their defense, but after a season full of miracles from a unit riddled by injuries, Todd Bowles’s group simply couldn’t deliver another salvo. Arizona’s blitzes failed to get home far too frequently, and when they did get pressure on Newton, he was consistently able to elude the pass rush to step away and either find an open receiver or scramble for a big play. Arizona sacked Newton only once and knocked him down on a mere three occasions, with Newton scrambling to pick up consecutive third-and-longs to start the second half, including one where he lured rookie spy Deone Bucannon too far to one side before slipping out the other direction for a conversion.

As with the Colts-Bengals game, this really needn’t have been this close of a contest, as the Panthers left some plays on the field. With little meaningful pass pressure, they were able to go after the weak links in the Arizona defense. Philly Brown did a number on Cromartie before leaving late in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. Lumbering tight end Ed Dickson repeatedly got open on, of all things, a pair of wheel routes that could have been touchdowns, only for Newton to miss the first one versus Cover 3 and narrowly overthrow the second one with Sam Acho in coverage. Dickson had more success versus an overmatched, gimpy Larry Foote. Carolina didn’t even really need to throw the football; it ran the ball 41 times for a total of 188 yards, and it felt like Carolina didn’t pound the rock quite enough.

The Panthers graduate to a far more terrifying fate, a road trip to Seattle to face the Seahawks as 11-point underdogs. After being written off at 3-8-1, you would forgive Carolina for feeling like it has nothing to lose. As for the Cardinals, nobody will feel like they lost more, given how impressive their 9-1 start had been and what little they could do once they lost Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. There’s almost nothing they could have done; there just aren’t enough quarterbacks in the world for a team to have a viable third-string passer,4 and the chances a team will simultaneously be competitive enough to play meaningful football in January while also being stuck with their third-stringer are virtually nil. Every team has to run risks with their roster construction, but this wasn’t a risk any team could have prepared for or survived.


4.

Lindley is technically the fourth-stringer, given that the Cardinals started the year with Palmer, Stanton, and Thomas as their quarterbacks. They cut Lindley in August before re-signing him in November.

Even if it wasn’t their fault, the Cardinals have to be kicking themselves. This was probably the last game of Foote’s career. It may very likely be the last game of Fitzgerald’s Cardinals career, as his cap hit of $23.6 million for next year is simply untenable, regardless of what the Cardinals suggest publicly. (They could clear up more than $16 million in cap space for 2015 by releasing him as a post–June 1 cut, and they will surely pass on paying the $8 million roster bonus due Fitzgerald on the eighth day of the 2015 league year.) Bowles, their brilliant defensive coordinator, deserves a head-coaching gig. It has to be depressing to see that all end on the overmatched shoulders of a quarterback who may very well never take another NFL snap. This was a special year with an inglorious, unforeseeable ending.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers

Dumervil Mod

Strangely, the best-played game of the weekend was also the least-interesting contest. Baltimore’s 30-17 win over Pittsburgh was closer than that final score suggests, a game that had both teams right around a win expectancy of 50 percent at halftime before the Ravens eventually pulled away in the fourth quarter. In a game in which each team averaged 5.4 yards per play and couldn’t run the football at all, the Ravens won the latest Baltimore-Pittsburgh playoff game on the back of their pass rush.

Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs didn’t single-handedly win this game for the Ravens, but the post-peak combo were the biggest force propelling Baltimore in that direction. While the Steelers sacked Joe Flacco only once and knocked him down four times on 32 dropbacks, the Ravens went to town on Ben Roethlisberger with a force led by their star duo. Dumervil had two of Baltimore’s five sacks Saturday night, whipping Marcus Gilbert before Gilbert left with an injury. Backup Courtney Upshaw then beat replacement tackle Mike Adams on the sack that briefly forced Roethlisberger out of the game in the fourth quarter.

That sequence, of course, seemed downright vile in 2015. Roethlisberger, whose head whipped forward and smashed into the cold Pittsburgh turf on that sack, left the game briefly amid speculation that he might have been concussed. He returned after three plays and no more than two minutes of treatment on the sideline for what was then revealed to be a neck injury, at which point he immediately threw an ugly interception to essentially end the contest. I hesitate to say the interception was proof that Roethlisberger was concussed — if so, Eli Manning suffers about 15 concussions a year — but there’s no way doctors could even have determined Roethlisberger was concussed in that brief time span, with the league’s concussion protocol requiring a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes for the appropriate checks.

The pain was compounded when tight end Heath Miller took a big hit that clearly staggered him on Bruce Gradkowski’s first pass, only to return to the game shortly thereafter and fumble away a completion. Maybe Roethlisberger and Miller didn’t actually have concussions, and the Steelers have magic doctors who can diagnose things in minutes. It seems hard to believe that Pittsburgh — or Roethlisberger and Miller themselves — cared more about its stars’ health than it did about winning the football game.5


5.

Pittsburgh wasn’t alone here. During the Lions-Cowboys game, Brandon Pettigrew was announced as questionable to return with a concussion and later did return. How? Unless Pettigrew went through the protocol and was found to not have a concussion, it seems like he should have been kept out.

Suggs, meanwhile, was the straw who stirred the drink. While he didn’t finish with a sack or a quarterback hit, Suggs made his presence known in other ways. He shed a Miller block in the backfield and knocked down Dri Archer for a loss on Archer’s only carry. He drew a holding penalty against Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum that wiped off an Archer touchdown catch on the play before Roethlisberger suffered his potential concussion. Suggs came up with the most important play of the night, though, when he intercepted a Roethlisberger checkdown between his thighs after it bounced off Ben Tate’s hands. With Pittsburgh down eight and deep inside its own territory with 8:10 left, the pick all but sealed the game for Baltimore.

The NBC crew talked about Suggs during the game as if he were a guaranteed Hall of Famer, which seemed interesting to me. I dismissed it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself agreeing with Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels about Suggs’s candidacy. It’s worth remembering that Suggs entered the league as a 20-year-old; he’s still just 32, nine months younger than Cameron Wake. He’s got 106.5 sacks and he should probably add another 30 over the next four years. The only guys above 135 sacks who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are Jason Taylor, who should be elected when he’s eligible, and Kevin Greene, who has 160 sacks and isn’t in because … you tell me, because I have no idea.

We’re also at the point when Suggs’s postseason accolades are worth counting. He’s played a full 16-game slate of playoff contests and accrued 12 sacks. The only players who have amassed more sacks in the postseason since the league started officially counting them in 1982 are Bruce Smith and Willie McGinest. Suggs has also taken over more than one game; he terrorized the Patriots in that 2009 blowout in Foxborough, took down Peyton Manning twice in the Rahim Moore game during the 2012 playoffs, and had three sacks against the Steelers the last time these two teams met in the 2010 playoffs.

It was also illuminating to see the Baltimore secondary making plays. While Antonio Brown got his because Antonio Brown is always going to get his, an anonymous group of Ravens defensive backs made big plays during this game. Those mostly involved Will Hill, the talented former Giants safety who was cut this offseason after being suspended for the third time in three years. The Ravens took a chance on Hill, let him sit out his six-game suspension, and found a player who immediately rose to the top of their depth chart. He’s a dynamic, versatile safety who can cover far more of the field than it might seem at first glance, and Hill manages to combine a penchant for big hits without the frustrating capacity for overrunning the play that the likes of LaRon Landry often exhibit. Darian Stewart came up with a big shove to knock an open Brown out of bounds and break up a catch before finishing the game by intercepting Roethlisberger. Rashaan Melvin had a quietly impressive game.

Contrast that to the Steelers, who got little out of the big-ticket veterans in their secondary. Ike Taylor was inactive despite practicing through an ankle injury all week, and while I might speculate that he was scratched for his performance, he gave an all-time terrifying death stare to the cameras before the game. Troy Polamalu was somehow anonymous. Mike Mitchell, signed to a five-year deal this offseason, took a number of poor routes in coverage to create plays downfield and extended a Ravens drive with a helmet-to-helmet hit.

The Steelers found themselves dependent upon the likes of Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, and Blake in particular struggled. He somehow combined playing off coverage and missing a tackle on third-and-14 to extend one drive before committing a 32-yard defensive pass interference penalty on Torrey Smith. It was part of a huge penalty disparity for the Steelers, who committed eight infractions for 114 yards, while the Ravens committed two for just 14 yards.

The Smith story remains interesting. He finished the year with 49 catches for 767 yards, pedestrian figures for a guy who most would have suggested capable of a breakout year in his contract season. Where did his yards go? Pass interference penalties. During the regular season, Smith drew 11 pass interference calls for 229 yards, which is a downright staggering total. Nobody else in football had more than the six penalties and 129 yards accrued by Jordy Nelson; it’s not a sticky skill at these extremes, but it’s still a useful bargaining chip for a player who was among the league leaders with a 6-95 pass interference line last year. He’s at 12-261 now.

In all, it was a complete win for the Ravens, who are a difficult team to figure out. They play the Patriots next week, and while it’s tempting to note that they’ve enjoyed some success against New England in playoffs past, just 14 players who suited up for the game between these two during the 2009 playoffs will do so again in the 2014 postseason. More likely, Baltimore will give New England fits because it can deliver a pair of truly impressive pass-rushers. Dumervil and Suggs are on the prowl.