PITTSBURGH (AP) – Ryan Shazier was everywhere. His helmet rested on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bench. His jersey too. His face and #Shalieve stitched on specially-designed cleats. His familiar No. 50 printed in white in the middle of a gold circle on T-shirts worn by teammates searching for a way to let Shazier know he is never far from their mind as he recovers from a spinal injury that put the linebacker’s blossoming career in jeopardy.
Shazier may never play football again. That doesn’t make him any less of a Steeler. And the men who have taken so much from him over the last three-plus years decided it was time they gave him something back in return: the AFC North title he ordered them to lock down without him.
Chris Boswell made a 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left and Pittsburgh’s defense overcame a shaky night without their most dynamic player to shut down Baltimore’s last-gasp drive and hold on for a 39-38 victory on Sunday night to capture their third division title in the last four years.
“We are riding with that guy,” head coach Mike Tomlin said of Shazier. “He is strong. He is strengthening us.”
Looked like it.
The Steelers (11-2) trailed by 11 points going into the fourth quarter but capped an emotionally draining week to rally for their eighth straight victory, one they couldn’t wait to share with Shazier, who joined the giddy postgame celebration via Facetime.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to top 500 yards passing three times. Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, including two long gains in the fourth quarter that allowed the Steelers to recover after blowing an early 14-point lead. Le’Veon Bell had 125 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns .
“We can win a shootout against anybody,” Bell said. “I feel like we can score points whenever we need to.”
Good thing, because Pittsburgh might have to. The Ravens (7-6) rolled up 414 yards against the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense and recovered from a slow start to score on five consecutive drives and six out of seven to take a 38-29 lead on Javorius Allen’s second touchdown with 6:44 left.
Not much time against most teams. Far too much against the Steelers.
Roethlisberger and Brown, who is mounting a legitimate MVP candidacy, hooked up on a 57-yard connection set up an 11-yard sprint by Bell with 3:29 to go. The Steelers forced the Ravens into a three-and-out and Roethlisberger calmly led Pittsburgh within field goal range, including a 34-yard lob down the sideline to Brown that set up Boswell’s winner.
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw for 269 yards passing with two touchdowns and one interception but was strip-sacked by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt on the Ravens’ final snap.
“This one hurts,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We lose to them the same way we did last year. This one sucks, but we’ve got to get over it. Yeah, this one’s going to hurt but it’s best for us to have a short memory on this one because if we win out there’s a good chance we’ll be in (the playoffs).”
Shazier, who’s been in the hospital since injuring his spine in the first quarter of last week’s victory over Cincinnati, told his teammates to finish the work he helped start. Even as they celebrated an important step in a journey they hope will carry them deep into the postseason, they were making plans to keep Shazier involved, starting with a late-night trip to the hospital to deliver him his AFC North champions’ swag.
“We are going to give him the hat and T-shirt tonight,” good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams said.
When someone mentioned visitor’s hours were probably over, Williams repeated “tonight.” Then, it was home to rest before preparing for a showdown with New England next Sunday.
“That’s the crazy part about the NFL, things constantly change and you’ve got to keep rolling,” Williams said. “So you’ve got to find a way to roll with the punches even though it may be a haymaker, got to find a way to recover.”
Linebacker James Harrison took to the field shirtless during warmups even as temperatures hovered in the low-30s, a nod to one of Shazier’s pregame rituals. When Roosevelt Nix drilled Moore on the opening kickoff, Nix lifted his jersey to show the T-shirt most of the Steelers wore at some point during the night.
BRING ON THE PATS
The Steelers fell to New England in a one-sided loss in the AFC championship game 10 months ago. They’re not exactly intimidated by the prospect of facing Tom Brady and company.
“You act like they’re coming in with Kryptonite, Superman and Batman and Avatars and stuff,” Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Heck yeah, it’s a regular football game, what do you mean? We’re going to go out there, tackle the football and run the football.”