Ravens try to end dismal season with a win

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' dreadful season will mercifully come to a halt today against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Whether the NFL's longest current losing streak will stop after a franchise-record nine-game skid is another matter altogether.

The Ravens (4-11) will conclude their injury-plagued campaign at M&T Bank Stadium shorthanded once again as they'll start their third-string quarterback and running back against the Steelers (10-5), who are already assured of a berth in the AFC wild-card round.

Since quarterbacks Steve McNair and Kyle Boller are sidelined with injuries, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith will make his second NFL start under center while Musa Smith makes his first career start in place of star running back Willis McGahee, who's out with fractured ribs.

Wrapping up a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations in July when the team arrived in Westminster for training camp, there aren't any real stakes involved in this one for the Ravens or the Steelers.

Already assured of finishing in sole possession of last place in the AFC North for the first time since 1997, the Ravens are trying to avoid going winless in the division for the first time and head into the offseason with some hope for the future.

"You want to go out on a winning note, whether you've lost 10 in a row, 12 in a row, and finally won your last game," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Regardless of what the season brings for you, you always want to go out on a positive note. I think by hopefully pulling out a victory in this last game against Pittsburgh, I think it will bode well for everybody's psyche.

"To go into the offseason, regardless of how the season went, regardless of how many injuries we've had as a team, to go out on a winning note, I think that would be a fitting end to a very trying, emotional and very disappointing season."

The Ravens have been beaten up physically, bumbled with multiple self-inflicted blows of turnovers and penalties and endured the humiliation of losing to the previously winless Miami Dolphins along with embarrassing blowout losses on national television to the Indianapolis Colts and Steelers.

"These guys are finishing," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You're tired, you're fatigued and you're emotionally worn out. But at this stage of the game, whether you're going to the playoffs or not, you're kind of in that state. I am just appreciative of the way these guys keep working through it."

The most relevant aspect of this game is probably starting Smith, a rookie who completed 16 of 33 passes for 199 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and lost a fumble in his starting debut last week in a 27-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

With virtually no weapons around him because McGahee was hurt in the first quarter, Smith had to rely upon his mobility and poise to try to make things happen.

This time, he'll have to contend with veteran Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's crafty 3-4 schemes for the NFL's top-ranked defense. Plus, the Ravens are without their top three tight ends because of injuries.

"I believe anything and everything in life happens for a reason," Smith said. "Anytime you get too excited about a situation, it's never going to happen the same exact way you want it to. So, I figure if I take small increments along the way to get better as a quarterback, decision-making, more completions, converting on third downs, etc., I'll get better as a player and the team will get better.

"Literally, I haven't been with this unit before, but now is my time. I can't cry over uncertain situations. This is the way it is. This is what I have to live with as a man, and this is the way it's going to be."

As for Musa Smith, he was once regarded as the future successor to Jamal Lewis when he was drafted him in the third round out of the University of Georgia. Due to leg and neck injuries, however, he has finished the past three seasons on injured reserve.

After five years, he gets a shot at displaying his game.

"That's what I'm really excited about," Smith said. "Definitely getting the touches, getting the rhythm, getting the feel of the defense, and doing some great things."

For veterans like offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and center Mike Flynn, their motivation centers on the fact that this could be their final games in Baltimore. Both players are pondering retirement.

"I'm just going out there, it's been a rough season obviously, to try to help us win," Ogden said. "I'll worry about everything else later. If it's the last one, hey, it's been a good ride."

The Steelers could wind up aiding the Ravens' cause.

They are expected to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw five touchdown passes in a 38-7 rout of Baltimore last month in Pittsburgh, because of a sprained ankle and start backup Charlie Batch. Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker is out with a broken leg and safety Troy Polamalu is likely out with a swollen knee.

The Steelers can earn the No. 3 playoff seed if they defeat Baltimore and the San Diego Chargers lose to the Oakland Raiders, but Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has already said that the seeding is insignificant to him.

Regardless of the low-profile stakes, this represents the Ravens' last chance to win a game in 2007. Their last win was Oct. 14 against the St. Louis Rams.

"We want to have something to build off of," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We want to try to get that monkey off our back so you can try to focus on winning football games and becoming a better football team and not worrying about, 'Hey, we haven't won a game in this many months or this many years.'

"So, just go out there and feel good and go out of the season saying, 'Hey, it wasn't the type of season that we expected it to be, but we held our heads high, we played with pride and gave it everything we had.' There's always something to build off of that."

NOTES: The Ravens placed tight end Todd Heap on injured reserve, officially ending his injury-plagued season after playing in just six games due to a strained hamstring. Safety Gerome Sapp was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. ... Baltimore promoted tight end Jake Nordin (Northern Illinois) and defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker (Rutgers) to the active roster from the practice squad.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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