Monday, December 25, 2006

Week 16 – Refresh. Refresh.

Pittsburgh, PA – 12/24/06

Can you picture Ray Lewis skipping and hopping along the sidelines chanting ‘Merry Christmas!’?

Well I bet you couldn’t picture the Houston Texans beating the Indianapolis Colts either, but that’s exactly what Ray and the Ravens got for Christmas this year and #52 didn’t hide his excitement.

In the span of about 10 seconds, the 2006 season went from a success to something truly special. And I was there to witness it all on the semi-frozen tundra of Heinz Field.

At first, the prospect of playing a rejuvenated Steelers team in Pittsburgh did not seem all that appealing. In fact, as we set up for the day while watching SportsCenter, Hank Goldberg of ESPN projected a 23-10 Steelers victory. What did he know?

Interestingly, our staging area was directly in front of the players entrance and we had the luxury of watching Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward report for duty. It was tough to look at Ward the same way after watching his local television show the night before. On the program, Hines and fellow Steeler Troy Polamalu went head to head in a fierce battle of…wait for it…wait for it…a Gingerbread Cookie Bake Off! To their credit, both gladiators of the gridiron held their own in an apron as Ward designed a Polamalu look a like cookie, while Troy opted for a Hawaiian hula girl. The dramatic duel was ruled a draw as both men fell equally as far down the intimidation scale.

Of course that’s about all the Steel City had going for it on a Saturday night. As we walked the streets of downtown, we were fortunate to even find a restaurant that was still open, and who knew, Pittsburgh also serves up some damn fine sushi. No match for Cleveland, but still respectable. Sushi was also the perfect meal for the evening as we had already managed to fit in dinner during our half-hour flight from Baltimore. The flight attendants were really hustling. They even had the courtesy to let me finish my dessert as the plane touched down. It wasn’t a gingerbread man, but their homemade chocolate cookies are delicious.

In defense of Hammerin’ Hank, the game was tough to predict. The Ravens had already clinched the division and their only hope of increasing their playoff seeding relied on one of the two teams ahead of them losing, the Colts or Chargers. A one or two seed would give the Ravens a highly sought after week off before beginning their post-season push. And with a few aging veterans leading the charge this season, a week of rest could give the Ravens what has apparently been the key to success this season, time to refresh.

The Steelers on the other hand were still in contention for a Wild Card spot after going 5-1 in their last six games. Of course the one loss was at the hands of the Ravens who registered nine sacks and a 27-0 victory back in November.

The one thing that was easy to predict was the weather. Let’s see. Pittsburgh. December. I would guess cold? Possibly frigid with a chance of bone shivering wind. I know its quaint to have a stadium built on the banks of three rivers, but someone had to realize that being so close to the water would be a better location for a wind farm than a football field.

As we took to the field, one thing we noticed, along with our wired Raven Chris McAlister, was that the playing surface was less than ideal. It was as if they were actually using the space for a farm during the week. Or maybe a driving range. The divots sprinkled the entire stadium and what was left was a mix of gravel, grass, and dirt. I was a little nervous because unlike my last 14 games, today I was forced to wear khaki pants on the sidelines (I left three pairs of wind pants in the dryer as we rushed out of the house on Saturday!). I was going to have to plan my kneeling carefully if I wanted to keep the pants in good condition. Of course my pants were actually a consistent theme for the weekend as I was chided for my ensemble on the plane ride in as I matched brown pants with a bluish shirt. Phil, I blame the wife.

The grudge match did not prove to be much of a match up as the Ravens proved the prognosticators wrong with a dominant victory over the Steelers. However, I had my sights sets on the scoreboard most of the day as the Colts were playing at 1:00 as well. As I mentioned, an Indy loss coupled with a Ravens win would give Baltimore a chance at a first round bye.

Surprisingly, the Texans were hanging with the Colts all day and even jumped out to a 14-0 lead. I whispered a few sweet something’s to Lauryn, but wanted to make sure she didn’t tell anyone near the bench. I wasn’t going to be the one to disrupt the focus of the players. Of course she immediately ran over to Don to tell him the good news.

As their game went to the fourth quarter, Houston still had the lead. But as is typical for a Peyton Manning led team, the advantage vanished quickly and we noticed that they were soon tied at 24. Don, Lauryn and I kept trading knowing glances and we all thought for sure that Manning would find a way to pull out a win. And then came those magical 10 seconds.

The Steelers were backed up near their own end zone to start a fourth quarter drive down just fourteen. Consequently, Jeff and I set up behind the end zone to get a good look at McAlister and Ward going at it. As I kneeled over Jeff’s shoulder, I looked up at the scoreboard in the far end zone. My advertising career has taught me a few things about tracking eye movements as the brain processes one element at a time. Well I was definitely processing what I saw next one element at a time. First, a 27 next to HST. Then, a 24 next to IND. And finally, a FINAL next to the score. I had to re-read it a few times before I full comprehended what must have happened. Not only had the Texans took the lead, the game had ended. Manning could not do any more. The Colts had lost.

My first reaction was to yell in Jeff’s ear, “The Texans Won!”. Of course he hadn’t been watching as closely and may not have known that they happened to be playing the Colts. Then I scanned the sidelines for Lauryn. She was skipping towards me, full of smiles. She knew! We both pointed at the scoreboard, making sure we each knew for sure what had just happened deep in the heart of Texas.

And then, just when the Steelers were threatening to comeback, Dawan Landry intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it for what appeared to be a defensive touchdown. (The fact that a review ended up ruling Landry out at the 1 yard line was not important). The celebration was on. The celebration that had been missing the week before, that must have been pent up in all the players hoping and praying for a chance at a week off, was let out. Jubilation. Dancing. Hugging. And of course Ray and his holiday wishes.

The thrill of the chase did not end in Pittsburgh. There was at least one more game of importance left to be played on Sunday and the entire team knew what it meant. If the Chargers lost in Seattle, the Ravens would be in position for the #1 seed in the AFC. Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A potential AFC Championship game in Baltimore. All eyes were on the Chargers, or at least our cell phone Internet browsers.

On the bus ride to the airport, Ray and Bart Scott were shouting out updates. Luckily the flight was a quick one and the game had just started the fourth quarter when we landed back home. And that’s when the real fun began. I started working my thumbs on the Treo fast and furiously to get new statistics. Refresh. Refresh. And I wasn’t just thinking it; everyone around me was asking for updates. Even a few of the players had taken an interest in what my Treo had to say including fellow Orange alum, Adam Terry. Jeff dubbed me, ‘Thumbs Lukin’ and I was providing play by play to the front of the bus. (Another lucky PDA owner was giving the back of the bus updates).

The game went back and forth and the Chargers were down 4 with just 30 seconds left to play. I was being asked how much time was left, how many time outs they had, what was the weather, what down was it, who had the ball, what was the crowd noise like….we were all hinging on my data download speed. And then our luck finally ran out. Philip Rivers hit Vincent Jackson for a 37-yard touchdown to put San Diego ahead for good. No more Christmas miracles this weekend, but one surprise gift was all we could have asked for. Not to mention a season sweep of our division rivals.

Now I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with many of the Ravens staff over the last four months and a few even read my postings each week, but by no means do I believe that any of the players take note of the blog. However, the reaction on the sidelines on Sunday was exactly what I was hoping for. It was electrifying. It was exhilarating. It was near freezing. It was refreshing.


Meg said...

Josh- You should seriously consider taking up this sports writing stuff as a permanent position. The blog flows better than most sports pages and intensifies as any good article should. Keep it up... you and Laur have to maintain the excitement for playoffs!!! Congratulations, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Happy New Year! (I told Laur I loved your card!) Cheers, Meg

Anonymous said...

Nice Pants.

Unknown said...

There is definately a great deal to know about this subject. I love all the points you made. sign in to gmail