PITTSBURGH — The last year and a half for the Baltimore Ravens has been one wild ride. They went from Total Nonentities to Super Bowl champs to stars of their own TV show. But like a lot of wild rides, the Ravens’ ended with a crash. How else would you describe their 27-10 stomping by the Steelers yesterday?
Simply put, the Ravens looked like a team that was ready for its season to be over. And maybe they were, even if they didn’t quite know it. It ain’t easy being the defending champs, and the road to Pittsburgh featured more than its share of potholes and traffic delays. Their meal-ticket running back got hurt, their free agent quarterback couldn’t hit the broad side of Tony Siragusa at times and, well, they never got the magic back.
“The game really wasn’t that close, to be honest,” Shannon Sharpe painfully admitted. “It easily could have been 40-, 45-10. That’s what happens in the playoffs when you don’t play your best. There are a lot more blowouts in the playoffs than close games.”
Let’s face it. The Steelers right now are the better club. By far. They hinted as much back in December when they beat the Ravens at PSINet Stadium, outgaining them by nearly 300 yards in a 26-21 win, and they offered even more evidence yesterday at Heinz Field, bolting to a 20-0 lead and outplaying the Ravens in every which way.
That the Steelers defeated Baltimore twice without the services of Jerome Bettis shows just how far they’ve come. Bettis was a late scratch again yesterday his groin injury still hasn’t healed but the Pittsburgh offense hardly missed him. Amos Zereoue simply ran around the Ravens instead of over them (as the Bus would do), and Bill Cowher mixed in a couple of trick plays (a reverse to Troy Edwards, a direct snap to Hines Ward) to keep Ray Lewis and Co. off balance.
That and the periodic wanderings of Kordell Stewart enabled the Steelers to move the ball on the ground. And when Stewart needed to throw it, Ward and Plaxico Burress were frequently able to work themselves free. You don’t often see the Ravens defense pushed around like that; they’re usually the ones doing the pushing.
“I’m not going to cry and say we should have won,” said Tony Siragusa, who likely played his last NFL game. “Weshouldn’t have won. We gave up too many points and big plays as a defense. … Pittsburgh played outrageous today. If they continue to play this way, I have no doubt they’ll be champions like we were last year.”
All you need to know about the Baltimore offense is that its first nine pass plays went like this: interception, 6-yard gain, sack, 4-yard gain, incompletion, interception, near interception, dropped ball, 5-yard gain followed by a fumble. No, Elvis Grbac didn’t come out smokin’. But then, how many times has he this season? He just never seemed to get comfortable in his new surroundings and now he and Brian Billick will have the offseason to ponder what to do about it.
Maybe the strangest part of the game was that it was 20-0 before Grbac succeeded in getting the ball to Sharpe, who’s only his best receiver. What could he and Billick have been thinking of? Once Sharpe was included in the offense, he quickly caught three more passes to move the Ravens downfield for a field goal. But it was their only decent drive of the afternoon. The rest of the time Terry Allen, Jason Brookins and Moe Williams were getting thrown back by the Pittsburgh defense like they were undersized fish either that or Grbac, when he wasn’t misfiring, was getting buried by pass rushers.
“If you have deficiencies, in the playoffs they’ll get exploited,” said Sharpe. “And it was clear today that offensively, we don’t have the personnel in all areas to get the job done. When you play 60 minutes and only have 120 [actually, 150] of total offense, I don’t need to say any more. … We couldn’t have beaten anybody today with  yards.”
More and more, it’s looking like this is the Steelers’ year. They had three fumbles against the Ravens and emerged from the pile with the ball each time. And when Stewart stumbled momentarily and threw an interception deep in Pittsburgh territory, Brent Alexander picked off Grbac in the end zone two plays later.
All good runs must come to an end, but the Ravens couldn’t have wanted theirs to end like this. Seven first downs? One third down conversion? Their opponent controlling the ball for nearly 41 minutes? Talk about going quietly.
Looks like Bill Cowher was right. Looks like Stewart really isa good enough quarterback to get the Steelers where they want to go. Where they want to go, of course, is the Super Bowl only they’d prefer to win it this time. And they just might.
As for the Ravens, “You ride [the wave] as long as you can ride it,” said Lewis. And then, inevitably, you wipe out. It happened to Lombardi’s Packers, and now it’s happened to Billick’s bunch. The question is: How soon will they be back?