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Steelers look to extend their magic in primetime games

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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

The typically stoic Joe Flacco couldn’t suppress a chuckle when he met with reporters in Baltimore.

Asked about the game atmosphere at Heinz Field, the longtime Baltimore Ravens quarterback said, “I actually like playing there during the day, but I’ve only done it, like, once or twice.

“It always happens to be a Sunday night or something like that.”

It does. Only twice over the past eight seasons has the annual Pittsburgh Steelers-Ravens game not had a primetime kickoff. Counting a 4:30 p.m. Christmas kickoff under the Heinz Field lights in 2016, just once over that span has the sun set by the end of the first quarter.

“It’s not like we’re afraid,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said, “to go up there and play in primetime.”

The Ravens shouldn’t be, but maybe the rest of the league should. After all, Baltimore is a not-too-bad 7-8 (regardless of venue) against the Steelers in night games. The Ravens also have the most recent opponent win against the Steelers in primetime.

But that was three years ago.

In between, the Steelers have won 10 consecutive primetime games. Counting the postseason, they have won their past 12 games that kicked off after 7 p.m.

Five days after extending their “Monday Night Football” winning streak to six with a 30-27 win at Tampa Bay, the Steelers look to make it 10 in a row in Sunday night games when they face the Ravens at 8:20 p.m.

Several Steelers were asked if there was any explanation for the primetime success.

“I don’t know,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Maybe the magic comes out at night.”

Pouncey, an offensive captain, paused.

“You can’t really say.”

Apparently, no one can.

“I don’t know,” Antonio Brown said.

“Wish I knew,” Ramon Foster said.

Artie Burns: “I don’t know.”

Marcus Gilbert: “It’s tough to say.”

And so it went. Chalk it up to coincidence?

Perhaps. But after a little pondering, Gilbert offered up a best theory.

“You have a guy like ‘7,’ ” the offensive tackle said, referring to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “When his number is called in a primetime game, he is going to go out there and deliver.”

The facts support that notion, particularly at home. Roethlisberger is 40-14 as a starter in primetime, including 10-3 on Sunday nights at Heinz Field. His passer rating, completion percentage, touchdown rate, yards per attempt and yards per game go up — in some cases considerably — in late games.

What makes that all the more remarkable is primetime games bring out the proverbial “primetime” teams. The NFL, as a practice, doesn’t schedule last-place teams for its showcase games. Of the 12 consecutive Steelers primetime wins, only two came against teams that finished with a losing record.

The Steelers haven’t had one of those since 2003, which is one of the reasons they have been involved in night games so often. Since NBC took over the NFL’s marquee weekly broadcast game window in 2006, only the New England Patriots have appeared on the network more often (counting the postseason).

“The reason we are so good playing these night games?” defensive captain Cameron Heyward asked himself. “I think it’s because we play so much at night.

“We have the experience that goes along with it.”

Sunday’s game will be the Steelers’ seventh primetime appearance over their past 13 regular-season games. Throw in a Christmas showcase game and toss out the meaningless regular-season finale, and it’s even more pronounced. The Steelers seemingly play more games under the spotlight (literal and/or metaphorical) than they do with a more traditional 1 p.m. start.

“I think we are the type of team, of organization, that we rise up in those opportunities,” veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “Every year, you know we are going to get five to six primetime games (and) a couple games might get ‘flexed’ (into “Sunday Night Football”) at the end of the season. And we know we gotta show up.

“We’re one of the flagship organizations in sports, so we know we’ve got to show up in primetime.“

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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