Steelers in spoiler role

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> On the first weekend of the season, Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick scolded reporters for reminding him of his preseason prediction. <br><br>On the last weekend of the season, Billick practically thanked those same reporters for bringing it up again.

"That was an easy prediction to know that this game was going to have a bearing on the consequences of the season," Billick said.

Yes, Wile E. Genius predicted this summer that tonight's regular-season finale between the Steelers and Ravens would decide the AFC North Division championship. But Billick all along figured the Steelers would be one of the two teams in the race. Instead, the 6-9 Steelers are only looking to spoil the chances of the 9-6 Ravens, who could win the division earlier in the day if the 8-7 Cincinnati Bengals lose to the 4-11 Cleveland Browns.

That's unlikely, since the game will be played in Cincinnati. What's more likely is that the Steelers would send the Bengals into the playoffs by winning Sunday night in Baltimore.

"I'm loving it," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said after his team beat the San Diego Chargers last Sunday. "That is our playoff game."

Cowher has since backed off the statements. When asked to expound two days later, at his Tuesday press conference, Cowher would only say "These are two teams that have a genuine respect for one another, but probably a genuine dislike for one another. It is the last game of the season for us and we are looking forward to it."

The two teams do dislike each other. It's doubtful even Billick could deny that. In fact, the Ravens' dislike of the Steelers only grew in the Steelers' 34-15 win in the opener.

That day, the Steelers held the Ravens to their only sub 100-yard rushing game of the year (23 carries, 88 yards) and held rookie quarterback Kyle Boller to 152 yards passing on 43 attempts.

Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, on the other hand, had his best passing day of the season. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns with a season-best passer rating of 134.3.

Then, it all changed.

"That game feels like it was a lifetime ago," Billick said. "It feels like it was a different season. For us, it probably was. The maturation of this team, building on last year when we were the youngest team in the history of the league. To start the season we were still the third youngest in the league. There is a maturation for this team and that maturation has taken place and has been fairly well documented through the course of the year."

While the Steelers' collapse was due mainly to the collapse of its offensive line and running game, the Ravens' rise was due mainly to the improvement in its running game. Jamal Lewis, in fact, leads the NFL in rushing with 1,952 yards. He can break Eric Dickerson's season record of 2,105 yards with 154 yards tonight.

The Steelers have allowed only one rusher that much yardage this season. Two weeks ago, Curtis Martin of the New York Jets rushed for 174 yards in the snow. Otherwise, only Priest Holmes with 122 and William Green with 115 have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Steelers this season.

The Ravens' passing game, however, hasn't improved much if at all. Boller tore a quadriceps muscle against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 9 and was replaced by Steelers castoff Anthony Wright. In six games, Wright has directed the Ravens to four wins, but his passing stats have declined significantly.

After posting a passer rating of 119.1 in a stirring come-from-behind win over Seattle in his second start, Wright's ratings have fallen to 88.3 to 46.9 before climbing back up to 65.8 and 64.6 the last two weeks. For the season, Wright has a passer rating of 74.3, which is better than his career mark of 62.5.

The Steelers let Wright go during the 2000 training camp. He'd signed with the team as an undrafted free agent in 1999 and impressed with his arm strength and mobility. But he developed a sore arm the following summer and couldn't beat out fifth-round pick Tee Martin, who has also been released since then.

Wright isn't about to threaten an improving Steelers secondary, but Lewis and an ever stout defense remain the Ravens' strengths.

"It is well documented that these two teams don't like each other," Billick said. "But I think more is made of it than actually exists."

Until after the game. Then we can expect Billick to change his tune again.

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