Ravens end dismal season on winning note

BALTIMORE -- The football sailed errantly over the middle of the field into the waiting fingertips of cornerback David Pittman, ensuring that one of the worst seasons in the Baltimore Ravens' history would actually end with a victory.

The interception transpired in the closing seconds of a 27-21 win over the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, snapping the NFL's longest losing streak at nine games.

After a Charlie Batch touchdown pass followed by a successful onside kick that set up another Batch touchdown on fourth down, Pittman picked off a pass intended for Santonio Holmes to seal the outcome.

"I took a deep breath once we got that interception," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who finished the season with a career-high 103 receptions. "All that frustration just came out. No matter how the season went, we were able to win our last game and that's good. .. I think we've got to add some people and get a lot of these guys healthy, and I guarantee we'll be back on that roll."

Apathy has already set in, though, as a large portion of the stadium was empty with a lot of seats occupied by Steelers fans waving their trademark yellow Terrible Towels. As a consequence of the win, the Ravens will draft eighth overall.

Although the win was meaningless in terms of significance in the standings as Baltimore (5-11) was already assured of sole possession of last place in the division for the first time in a decade and Pittsburgh (10-6) was primarily trying to avoid injuries while resting several starters heading into Saturday's AFC wild-card game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens still took satisfaction from the result.

The Ravens halted a losing skid that lasted 76 days, a streak dating back to an Oct. 14 win over the St. Louis Rams. It was the Ravens' fifth consecutive win at home over Pittsburgh, broke a four-game losing streak at home and marks their sixth win out of their past eight season finales.

"No matter what the circumstances are, it's always great to win a game, to finish that way against a division rival," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who has repeatedly expressed confidence that he'll be retained by team owner Steve Bisciotti. "To go out there and physically have to do what you have to do under those circumstances, they showed their professionalism to the end. It was an outstanding win. Hopefully, that's a sign of things to come."

The Ravens won the game largely because of a group of obscure reserves in the lineup due to injuries, especially rookie quarterback Troy Smith and running backs Musa Smith and Cory Ross.

Starting his first NFL game in five years because star running back Willis McGahee was out with fractured ribs, Musa Smith rumbled for a career-high 83 yards and a touchdown while Ross produced a career-high 72 yards and his first professional touchdown on a dozen carries. It was Ross' first carries at running back since he was a college senior at Nebraska.

The Ravens gained a season-high 180 rushing yards for their most ever against the Steelers and their highest total since a Dec. 19, 2005 win over the Green Bay Packers. It came at the expense of the NFL's top-ranked defense overall and the league's third-ranked rushing defense.

"They ran the ball well," wide receiver Devard Darling said. "Cory Ross was a big surprise."

Meanwhile, Smith maintained his composure despite a fumble and a few errant passes that were nearly intercepted to complete 16 of 27 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown pass to Darling for a career-high 90.2 quarterback rating in his second NFL start.

"I honestly felt like we would not be denied," Troy Smith said. "The season has been long and drawn out. Today, there was something special about the feel, something special about everything."

After beginning the season as the third-string quarterback holding the clipboard on the sidelines behind Steve McNair and Kyle Boller, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State started the final two games due to injuries and completed 40 of 76 passes for 452 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 79.5 quarterback rating.

"He can manage the game," Billick said. "With each experience, he grows and learns from it and I thought he did a great job beyond making the physical plays that he made. He managed the game very, very well. He has a rocket of an arm. He did an outstanding job."

The Ravens' second-ranked run defense held Pittsburgh to a season-low 44 rushing yards after entering the game averaging 141.5 rushing yards for the NFL's third-ranked running game. Playing in place of injured Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport gained just 27 yards on a dozen carries.

The Ravens were plagued by turnovers throughout the season, but had the good fortune of only losing just one of four fumbles Sunday.

Plus, the Ravens took advantage of Willie Reid fumbling the opening kickoff on a hit by linebacker Antwan Barnes with Darling's recovery setting up Smith's two-yard touchdown run eight plays later.

Then, a 57-yard drive keyed by Smith's running led to Matt Stover's 28-yard field goal for a 10-0 advantage.

Ross' 32-yard touchdown run where he faked out safety Anthony Smith staked Baltimore to a 17-0 lead prior to Davenport halting the shutout in the second quarter with a one-yard touchdown run set up by cornerback Corey Ivy's 47-yard pass interference penalty.

Stover knocked in another field goal from 31 yards out to make it 20-7 at halftime. Then, Smith hit Darling from 15 yards out for a 20-point lead late in the third quarter.

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger resting a sprained ankle, Batch threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from 59 yards to Holmes as Derrick Martin missed an open-field tackle and completed a seven-yard score to Cedrick Wilson.

He was also intercepted twice by Pittman.

Regardless of the victory, it didn't erase the hard feelings or dull the disappointment of a team that launched the season with Super Bowl ambitions following a franchise-record 13-3 campaign only to go from first to worst in the division. And this may have been the final game for offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who's pondering retirement.

Multiple injuries to key starters, the worst turnover margin in the league, costly penalties and questionable play-calling from Billick, who's expected to relinquish play-calling duties as the team plans to hire a new offensive coordinator to replace Rick Neuheisel after he landed the UCLA head-coaching job, all combined for a brutally bad season.

"It's still frustrating," linebacker Bart Scott said. "You enjoy the win, but you look back and say, 'Woulda, coulda, shoulda.' It's one of those things that hurts because you knew you had a quality football team. For the most part, we weren't able to put that football team on the field for whatever reason with guys banged-up.

"It meant a lot for this team to come out with a win. I know all those Pittsburgh fans that bought all those tickets were out here to try to throw it in our face. It was good to let the Ravens' fans feel good about themselves. It's good for us to get that monkey off our back. You just wish it could have went another way."

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

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