Because of a 20-7 belt-whipping dealt out by the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz
Field where Pittsburgh won its team-record 13th consecutive game to clinch
home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Ravens' postseason prospects
were all but permanently crippled barring major assistance from other teams in
the final weekend of the regular season.
The Ravens (8-7) haven't been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, according to an NFL spokesman. He noted that the Elias Sports Bureau was still calculating all of the potential scenarios late Sunday night for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. Baltimore trails the Denver Broncos (9-6) and Buffalo Bills (9-6).
For a football team that dubbed itself a prime Super Bowl contender last summer, this is a bitter, sobering experience. Especially following a fourth defeat in its last five games as Steelers running back Jerome Bettis left cleat marks, cuts and bruises all over the defense.
"We've underachieved," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "We had high goals, to go to Jacksonville and the Super Bowl. Right now, our fate's not in our hands anymore. This one kills. There's no doubt.
"Anytime you come into a season and think about all the players we have and the expectations we have, to come out here and not perform up to the expectations hurts a lot. Next week, we're going to go out and play for pride because this one definitely puts us behind the eight ball."
Losing to Pittsburgh severely damages the Ravens' conference mark (5-6) and strength of victory quotient. They definitely need to defeat the Miami Dolphins next week and hope that Denver loses to the Indianapolis Colts and that Pittsburgh beats the Bills along with a myriad of other scenarios.
Ravens coach Brian Billick all but acknowledged that his team would be playing for pride against Miami on Sunday after losing its fifth road game out of eight this year.
"I have no clue, I can't imagine with the outcome of today and how things are going," Billick said. "If there's a ray of hope, then there's a ray of hope. If there is not, then you do it in a professional manner. We will go into the final week, be a professional and do the right things. We have no quit with this group."
The Steelers (14-1) didn't even punt one time Sunday.
The other low mark for the Ravens was the Steelers' opening drive of the third quarter.
Pittsburgh marched 71 yards on 14 plays, including a dozen running plays in a row down to the Baltimore 2, before rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger delivered a touchdown pass to tight end Jerame Tuman for a 17-7 lead. The drive took 8:34 off the clock, and effectively depressed the Ravens' defense.
"Of course, it's demoralizing when someone pounds the ball on you like that," Weaver said.
Bettis finished with a game-high 117 yards on 27 carries. Pittsburgh piled up 183 rushing yards on 42 carries.
The Steelers ran right at All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, using fullback Dan Kreider, center Jeff Hartings and offensive guard Alan Faneca to run physical interference for Bettis and Vernon Haynes, who added 61 yards on eight carries.
"We have to respond better in those circumstances," Billick said. "With their ability to run the ball and them getting it cranked up, certainly they are going to control the clock and that sets up the other things they like to do. The team that controls the line of scrimmage is going to win the game."
As Pittsburgh won all of its home games for the first time since its 1979 Super Bowl campaign, Bettis continually ran roughshod over Lewis' defense as the Steelers gained 404 yards of total offense.
"That's the kind of stuff we used to do," center Mike Flynn said.
Bettis eclipsed Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson for fourth on the NFL all-time rushing list, moving his career total up to 13,259 yards.
"It was just a matter of pounding on them," Bettis said. "There comes a point in every game where you have to test their will and see if they can stop you. We ran it, we ran it and we ran it. It showed that they could not stop us and we could pretty much do what we wanted to do."
What Baltimore wasn't capable of was the fundamentals of tackling.
Bettis and Haynes broke an unbelievable amount of tackles, bursting pat flailing arms and fingers. Bettis kept lowering his helmet and shoulder pads into Lewis' chest to plow him over. Lewis departed the stadium without commenting.
"It's always a physical battle with Pittsburgh, and we always respond," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "We did not today. There was a lot of missed tackles in the ball game, and we didn't match the physical part of it as well. That's a poor performance and a disappointment for everyone."
Pittsburgh established a high tempo right away as Roethlisberger connected with Plaxico Burress on the opening drive for a 36-yard touchdown pass. Burress simply outran cornerback Gary Baxter to the corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Baltimore answered immediately, one of the few times it successfully responded to the Steelers' aggression.
Jamal Lewis ran up the middle untouched for a 5-yard scoring run to cap an 11-play drive.
It was one of the few bright spots for Lewis, who was limited to 26 yards on 14 carries. Baltimore continually tested the perimeter in vain instead of grinding yards up the middle against inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote.
The Ravens gained only 71 yards rushing, down from 172 in their 30-13 win over Pittsburgh three months ago.
"There was room, it just wasn't where we were going," Lewis said. "We're a downhill team. Our offensive line, they fight and strive to get off the ball and I think that's where our tempo should be set: downhill plays, running straight at them.
"I think we gave Farrior and Larry Foote a day off. We didn't attack them."
Instead of capitalizing on safety Will Demps' interception following Lewis' touchdown, quarterback Kyle Boller gave the ball right back to Pittsburgh with an errant pass intercepted by outside linebacker Joey Porter. The turnover directly led to Jeff Reed's 23-yard field goal in the second quarter.
"It was kind of out of my control," Boller said. "The guy got my arm and kind of gave Joey Porter a belated Christmas present. It's just little things that kind of knocked us down. Losing sucks."
Baltimore scored only once in the four times it ventured into Steelers territory. That included a 44-yard field goal attempt that Matt Stover missed wide right in the third quarter along with a 4th-and-4 Boller pass that ex-Ravens linebacker James Harrison spiked to the ground like a volleyball.
"This team isn't scoring points," Billick said. "You don't get anything for stats."
Roethlisberger left the game in the third quarter after injuring his ribs when linebacker Terrell Suggs drilled him into the ground and drew a roughing the passer penalty on the touchdown pass to Tuman. Roethlisberger completed 14 of 19 passes for 221 yards, two touchdowns and a 125.1 passer rating.
"We shouldn't be in this position," safety Ed Reed said. "To go where we want to go, to get to that glory, it comes with conviction. It's got to be humbling.
"Football is truly a humbling game. We'll keep shooting for it. Regardless of what everybody else thinks, there are a lot of big hearts in this locker room. It's not the end of the world."
The Ravens' season began with high expectations, but was effectively derailed by several factors.
Entering Sunday, starters had missed a total of 46 games. Jamal Lewis was suspended for two games for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy following a plea bargain in his federal drug conspiracy case. And cornerback Chris McAlister skipped training camp to protest being assigned the franchise tag again. He's a repeat Pro Bowl selection who didn't play nearly as well this season.
"It's disheartening to think that we're going to be one of those teams that's watching everyone else play in January," defensive end Marques Douglas said. "We want to be one of those elite teams, and this year we're not."
As well as a being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.
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