- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A hated rival, the AFC North title, a playoff berth, an NFL rushing record and owner Art Modell’s final regular-season game.

There certainly are plenty of subplots tonight at M&T; Bank Stadium when the Baltimore Ravens take on the Pittsburgh Steelers before a nationally televised audience. But first and foremost is the little matter of the postseason.

The Ravens (9-6) may need to beat the Steelers (6-9) to clinch the franchise’s first-ever AFC North title. Meanwhile, the Steelers’ season has not gone as expected and they would love nothing more than to bounce the hated Ravens from the AFC playoff picture.

“It means a lot to Baltimore and to us,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. “What better way, if we aren’t going to the playoffs, than to take Baltimore down with us.”

Of course, there’s a possibility tonight’s game could have no bearing on the playoffs. If the Cleveland Browns (4-11) upset the Bengals (8-7) in Cincinnati today, then the Ravens would claim the division title. By kickoff the Ravens will know if they have to beat the Steelers or not.

“The only one that is going to deal with the consequences on Sunday prior to the game will be me,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “This team will be focused on beating Pittsburgh, going to the playoffs, period.

“Any adjustments, should they need to be made, and there won’t be many and when they are made, will be made by me. I am the only one that has to be concerned with it and the players aren’t. They are thinking in terms of one way. Cincinnati is going to beat Cleveland. They just are. I have a tough time believing that Cleveland is going to go into Cincinnati, and where they are with their mindset now — heck, their players last week said they wanted Cincinnati to win. So, we are approaching it only one way.”

The Ravens will have to establish the run in order to beat the Steelers and that’s where Lewis comes in.

The Ravens running back needs 48 yards to become only the fifth back in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Lewis, who has never rushed for 100 yards against the Steelers in five meetings, can break Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL rushing record if he runs for 154 yards against the Steelers’ 11th-ranked run defense.

“Yeah, the record is attainable,” Lewis said. “Anything is possible, but you just have to go out and execute and do the right things, so it can happen if it does happen.”

Meanwhile, at halftime, Modell will be inducted into the team’s “Ring of Honor” in a ceremony hosted by ESPN’s Paul Maguire, a friend. Modell is completing his 43rd and final season as the team’s owner — he will sell his stake in the Ravens next year. A Baltimore win and the subsequent playoff berth would be a fitting way to send off the venerable 78-year-old owner.

“I look at him as a guy who has been a big part of my NFL experience,” said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who played and coached with the Browns when Modell owned the team in Cleveland. “I will share with the people honoring him and he is a good man that has been good for the league.”

Cowher’s Steelers certainly haven’t been kind to the Ravens. Pittsburgh has a 6-1 record in Baltimore and leads this one-sided rivalry 12-4. Billick is 3-7 against the Steelers. In the season opener in Pittsburgh, the Steelers embarrassed the Ravens secondary when quarterback Tommy Maddox completed 21 of 29 passes for 260 yards, three touchdowns and a career-high 134.3 passer rating in a 34-15 blowout.

“They got what they wanted last game,” Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed said. “Let’s see about this one, though. Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Sunday night. Tune in.”

Ward, who leads the AFC in receiving with 93 receptions for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns, said as long as he and fellow wide receiver Plaxico Burress come and compete against the Ravens secondary, everything will take care of itself.

“For Plaxico and myself, it is always a challenge to play the Ravens defense,” Ward said. “We want to go out there and do the best job we can. If we can do a good job against their defense, then we are doing our job. There is no reason that Plex and myself can’t do well against Chris [McAlister, Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback] or whatnot. One thing that I know about this game is that I always come out black and blue.”

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