- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Now we'll find out if talk is cheap.
The AFC Central-leading Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens hurled pointed remarks at each other during the week. Tonight in a nationally televised showdown at PSINet Stadium, only one team will be able to back up its strong words.
One of the principle verbal combatants, Jerome Bettis the AFC's third-leading rusher probably won't play for the Steelers because of hip and groin problems. Bettis, who has rushed for 1,072 yards, has been downgraded from questionable to doubtful.
It was one of Bettis' comments in a recently published article that fired up the Ravens. In a Sports Illustrated piece that focused on the Cincinnati Bengals, the "Bus" said Bengals middle linebacker Takeo Spikes is a better player than Ravens four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis because Lewis benefits from a better supporting cast.
Lewis replied, "Tell him to tape that groin up and come see me at PSINet. Don't run from it. If he wants to save it for the playoffs, then either way he has got to see me."
As the AFC's best team at 10-2, the Steelers can afford to park the Bus and spare him the punishment the Ravens' rowdy defense is ready to dish out. A Steelers victory tonight would clinch the division. Amos Zereoue (334 yards on 67 carries) and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (159 yards on 43 carries) will share the workload of the NFL's top rushing attack with Bettis out.
The Ravens' dubious 13-10 win over the Steelers on Nov. 4 is what initiated a lot of the talk. The Steelers dominated the Ravens in almost every statistical category except the scoreboard. Pittsburgh kicker Kris Brown missed four field goals, including the potential game-tying kick from 35 yards out with 14 seconds left. The Steelers outgained the Ravens 348-183 but were handed their first-ever loss at Heinz Field.
"It doesn't matter if they give us credit or not, a win is a win," Lewis said of the first meeting.
The main reason for the Steelers' surprising season is the play of quarterback Kordell Stewart. With the Steelers' ability to run, Stewart has not been forced into a position where he has to make a lot of big plays.
Steelers first-year offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has devised a short passing scheme for the man known as Slash. The athletic Stewart has completed 60.5 percent (202 of 334) of his passes and is on pace to break Neil O'Donnell's team record for single-season completion percentage (59.1). The Steelers are 11-1 when Stewart completes at least 59 percent of his passes, including 8-1 this season.
"He's playing such a complete game, he's in complete control of the offense with his accuracy and the way he is delivering the ball," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "His first- and second-down efficiency is incredible. That's the big key. He always hurts you in the sense that he can keep drives alive on third down by pulling it down and making something happen."
The Ravens are coming off their bye week and will have several key performers healthy again. Defensive end Rob Burnett (calf) has missed the last three games and will split time with rising second-year end Adalius Thomas. Pro Bowl run-stopping defensive tackle Sam Adams returns after missing one game because of arthroscopic knee surgery. Nickel back James Trapp (groin), who missed the last four games, and running back Terry Allen, who has been out the past three games with a broken hand, are also expected to play.
A Ravens win tonight would still leave the team one game behind the Steelers with three to play. But the psychological impact of the Super Bowl champions breathing down their necks might cause the Steelers to blow one of their final three games and hand the division to the Ravens by virtue of a tiebreaker.
"It doesn't matter if [the Steelers] get home-field advantage in the playoffs, we're going to be in the mix of things," Lewis said. "I don't know if too many people want to see us in the mix of things and I think they are one of those teams that definitely don't."

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