Batch rescues the Steelers' season


NFL:Charlie Batch hugged each teammate he encountered long and hard as the Pittsburgh Steelers streamed off the field, as if he knew this was his valedictory. Since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sustained a shoulder injury and broken ribs three weeks ago and his backup, Byron Leftwich, broke his ribs, the Steelers' play-off hopes have hung on Batch's aging arm.

A team that early in November had seemed to be finding its play-off form after a victory over the Giants had been watching its annual appointment with the postseason slip away in a flurry of turnovers, missed passes and stalled offence. But on Sunday, the Steelers may have rescued their season with a 23-20 last-second victory over the Baltimore Ravens, their fiercest rival.

Only last week, the former receiver Hines Ward wondered whom the Steelers could rely on as a leader in the offensive huddle when adversity struck. The answer, it turned out, was Batch, who threw three interceptions last week as the Steelers turned the ball over eight times in a loss to the Cleveland Browns.

"I think every game I got out there, I look at it that way," Batch said of whether he played with greater urgency because this might be his last game. "I wanted this opportunity because I played poorly last week, and I wanted the opportunity to come out there and prove it and lead this team. I've been in the league 15 years. I've been a starter in this league, and the one thing you can't do is dwell on the past."

The victory kept the Steelers (7-5) two games behind the Ravens (9-3) in the AFC North. The loss prevented the Ravens from clinching a play-off berth, and a victory by the Bengals (7-5) over the Chargers kept the Steelers and the Bengals well situated in the AFC wild-card race.

The Colts, last-second victors over the Lions, are 8-4 and seem virtually assured of seizing one of the wild cards. That leaves the Bengals and the Steelers to fight it out over the final month of the season for the other, with a December 23rd game between them in Pittsburgh looming.

In the two previous games that Roethlisberger did not start, both losses and one of them against the Ravens in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, the Steelers scored 10 and 14 points. The Ravens had won 12 consecutive division games and 23 of their last 24 at home. They also owned a lopsided advantage at home, averaging 36.8 points, compared with 16.5 on the road.

But the version of the Steelers that appeared in Baltimore looked much more like a vintage Steelers team. The defence entered the game having allowed the fewest yards by opposing offenses in the league, and the fifth fewest points (an average of 19.1). That left it to the offense, of which Batch - in what could have been his last start, if Roethlisberger returns as expected next week - took control.

At almost 38, he completed 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards and was especially impressive in the second half, when the Steelers rolled up 273 of their 366 yards. There were gaffes; Batch wildly overthrew Mike Wallace in the end zone near the end of the first half and was intercepted by Ed Reed in the end zone early in the fourth quarter. But Batch was also sharper than he was in the previous two games, a result he anticipated when he said last week that he thought he was getting more comfortable with the receivers.

When Batch retires, he may look back and admire the block he threw to escort running back Jonathan Dwyer into the end zone early in the third quarter to tie the game. But it was after the Ravens retook the lead later in the third quarter that Batch did most of his work. After Reed's interception, the Steelers' defense returned the favor when James Harrison stripped Joe Flacco on a sack three plays later. The Ravens have waited for Flacco to play like an elite quarterback, but he did not on Sunday, completing 16 of 34 passes for 188 yards with an interception, a touchdown and that costly fumble.

The fumble gave Batch his opening. He completed a screen pass and then rifled a 17-yard pass down the middle of the field to Emmanuel Sanders. After a run went nowhere, on second and goal from the Ravens 7, Batch rambled to his right and fired a strike to tight end Heath Miller. Miller caught the ball at about the 3 and stretched out, extending the ball to touch the right pylon.

Then, after the defence held the Ravens again, Batch took a hard hit by Haloti Ngata on a 15-yard, third-down pass to Wallace on the right sideline. But he got up. The clock ticked down, time draining away on the Ravens' chances to get the ball back. The Steelers kept moving. They were at the Ravens 19 after a roughing-the-passer penalty, and after a false start and a few runs into the pile, Shaun Suisham kicked the winning 42-yard field goal with no time remaining.

But it was Batch, with his playing time probably up in the stretch run of the season, who had the most to celebrate.

"He did a great job managing the game, keeping us as an offense and making positive plays," Miller said.

Batch was asked if he would try to play again next year. "As long as I can play, I'm going to come back," he said. New York Times Service

Chiefs play through the pain barrier

NFL round-up: Battling their grief as much as their opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs scored a rare win just 24 hours after one of the darkest days in American sport. With the country still in shock after Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend then committed suicide, the struggling Chiefs (2-10) kept their emotions in check to beat the Carolina Panthers (3-9) 27-21 at Arrowhead Stadium.

"We do have a lot of guys who are really hurting," the struggling team's chief executive officer Clark Hunt explained. "I told them 'There's not a lot I can say to you other than we're family and we have got to pull together right now and support each other.'"

The New England Patriots, the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos all won yesterday to book their spots in the playoffs with four weeks to spare. The Atlanta Falcons also advanced to the postseason, leaving eight places up for grabs, when they clinched the NFC South Division after they won on Thursday and Tampa Bay lost yesterday.

The San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears both lost in overtime, defeats that could come back to hurt when seedings for the playoffs are decided, but the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts were celebrating after recording victories that left them on the verge of making the postseason.

The Patriots (9-3), last season's beaten Super Bowl finalists, clinched the AFC East division with a 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins (5-7) in Florida. It was the sixth win in a row for the Patriots and the ninth time in the past 10 years they have won their division. "It's good to get another division win. We accomplished one of our goals this year, to be in the postseason," said New England head coach Bill Belichick.

"That's good, but more importantly we just gotta keep working to get better. We still got a lot of football left to play."

The Texans (11-1) also chalked up their sixth straight victory, beating the Tennessee Titans (4-8) 24-10 to secure their spot in the playoffs, although they have still not clinched the AFC South division.

The Colts (8-4) stayed in touch with an extraordinary 35-33 comeback win over the Detroit Lions (4-8). Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck passed for 391 yards and four touchdowns, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Donnie Avery as the game clock expired to hand the Colts the victory after the Lions led by 12 in the final quarter.

The Broncos (9-3) wrapped up the AFC West title for the second year in a row after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) 31-23, with quarterback Peyton Manning throwing for 242 yards and three touchdowns.

The Packers (8-4) joined Chicago at the top of the NFC North standings with a 23-14 win over Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Lambeau Field with Aaron Rodgers completing 27 of 35 passes.

Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein converted a 54-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in overtime to hand the St. Louis Rams (5-6-1) a 16-13 victory over the 49ers (8-3-1), just three weeks after the two teams played out the first NFL tie in four seasons.

Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice to give the Seattle Seahawks (7-5) a 23-17 overtime victory over the Bears (8-4) in overtime.

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