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PITTSBURGH — The word began rapidly filtering throughout the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ bench, increasing in volume from cautious whispers to celebratory shouts. Not only were the Ravens the owners of a commanding lead over the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers by virtue of three crisp touchdown passes from quarterback Steve McNair along with a vicious, top-ranked defense, they had just been gifted early on the night before Christmas.
Prior to finishing off a 31-7 victory over the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, the AFC North champions erupted in jubilation when they learned that the Houston Texans had upset the Indianapolis Colts with a last-second field goal.
That outcome leapfrogs the Ravens (12-3) to the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC ahead of the Colts, assuring them of a valuable first-round bye along with a home playoff game in the second round of the postseason if they defeat the Buffalo Bills next week at home to conclude the regular season.
Previously, the Colts held a tiebreaker over Baltimore.
â€œThatâ€™s scary,â€ said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis of the team’s postseason outlook at M&T Bank Stadium. â€œAnytime youâ€™re sitting like that with the type of defense we play and with the way our offense is clicking right now, weâ€™re going to be a hard team to beat in the playoffs.â€
Baltimore nearly assumed control of the top seed in the AFC until the San Diego Chargers (13-2) pulled out a last-minute comeback win over the Seattle Seahawks.
â€œI canâ€™t tell you we werenâ€™t keeping tabs on the score,â€ safety Ed Reed said of the Colts game. â€œWe were.â€
This marks the Ravensâ€™ first win in Pittsburgh since 2001 as Baltimore outscored the Steelers 58-7 this year, including a 27-0 shutout last month at home. Also, the Ravens matched their franchise record for most victories in the regular season since the 2000 season when they won the Super Bowl.
Heading into a raucous locker room with rap music cranked up high, Lewis bellowed: â€œSomebody has got to come through Baltimore.â€
The dominant rout, which included five sacks of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and two interceptions, is the first time the Ravens have ever swept the Steelers and spells an eighth victory in their past nine games.
The Ravensâ€™ ability to focus on the immediate task created an effective winning formula as talk immediately turned toward how they have to beat the Bills next week to stay in control of their destiny.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to rest, or you might crap in your lunch bucket if you donâ€™t take care of what youâ€™ve got to take care of,â€ defensive end Trevor Pryce said. â€œAnd thatâ€™s the thing I like about this team right now. Itâ€™s a business-like approach.â€
Added tight end Todd Heap: "I think most everybody in the locker room had a feeling that if we just take care of our business, good things will happen. We’re already in the playoffs, and to get the bye is just gravy."
McNairâ€™s trademark ability to play through pain paid dividends again as he gutted it out with a throwing hand punctured last week when Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Andra Davis stepped on him.
First, McNair connected with wide receiver Mark Clayton (seven catches, 108 yards) for a 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter, hitting him in stride behind Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu on a skinny post. The scored followed McNair keeping the drive alive by gaining just enough ground on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak.
â€œThatâ€™s a play we had just put in,â€ Clayton said. â€œWe saw the past game that we had the opportunity to go up the middle. We had perfect timing, the perfect call and they lined up in the same defense."
In the third quarter, McNair located rookie Demetrius Williams on a seam route. He easily beat Polamalu to the corner for a second touchdown pass, a 25-yard score that gave Baltimore a commanding 21-7 advantage.
When asked if the Ravens were specifically targeting Polamalu in his first game back from a knee injury, Williams replied: â€œNo, not really. It just worked out that way.â€
McNair completed 21 of 31 passes for 256 yards and a 98.3 passer rating. Although he threw two interceptions, one was caused by a Clayton drop that deflected into the waiting hands of cornerback Deshea Townsend.
McNair left the locker room without talking to reporters for the first time this season. A Ravens team spokesman said that McNair was in a rush to catch a flight to Nashville, Tenn., to spend Christmas with his family.
â€œSteve McNair is a true leader,â€ cornerback Chris McAlister said. â€œHeâ€™s a true warrior. Week in and week out, he comes out and he gives you everything he has regardless of injury or cold, not feeling well, concussion.â€
McNairâ€™s first turnover directly led to Roethlisbergerâ€™s 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller, which was set up by an unnecessary roughness flag on outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
That sequence proved to be an aberration as the Ravens kept bashing into Roethlisberger, rattling him into an interception apiece from Reed and rookie safety Dawan Landry.
The Ravens werenâ€™t quite as unrelenting as they were Nov. 26 in Baltimore when they sacked Roethlisberger nine times and forced three turnovers, but they didnâ€™t need to be this time.
â€œThose couple of hits from the last time, he was probably thinking about them,â€ Reed said. â€œIâ€™m sure he had them in the back of his head.â€
Plus, Baltimore shut down running back Willie Parker again. He gained only 29 yards on 13 carries, finishing with 51 yards on 23 carries this season against the Ravens.
â€œWe had a mindset, bottom line, as a defense, to come out and make sure Willie Parker did not get started and I think we did a great job on him,â€ Lewis said. â€œWe still got to Ben Roethlisberger and rattled him a little bit.â€
A short punt by Chris Gardocki led to McNairâ€™s 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Wilcox in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal with the Steelers stacking the middle in anticipation of a Lewis run. A 6-yard personal foul by brash Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, who threw a headlock on Lewis, set up the score.
After taking a 14-7 lead into halftime, Baltimore boosted their lead with McNairâ€™s touchdown to Williams. Trailing 21-7, the Steelers were so desperate, they tried to convert a fourth-and-2 at their own 37-yard line. However, they failed.
The Ravens finished strong in the fourth quarter, notching a 26-yard field goal from kicker Matt Stover with 7:27 to go and a 1-yard touchdown run from Lewis (77 yards on 24 carries) to cap the scoring with 1:57 remaining.
â€œI think we put that doubt back in their head,â€ linebacker Bart Scott said. â€œI think we beat them at their game, our game, with physical football. We hit them with a lot of body blows. I think at the end it wasnâ€™t worth it for them.â€
Now, the Ravens can assure themselves of playing at home at least through the second round of the playoffs with a win Sunday over Buffalo. The Chargers can maintain control of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by wrapping the season up with a win over the Oakland Raiders.
â€œItâ€™s huge for us, but we donâ€™t care where we play,â€ Scott said. â€œAs long as Iâ€™ve got my teammates and my coaches with me, we can play in the Orange Bowl, USC, high school, Texas.
â€œThe reason we want to get it is we want Baltimore to feel the economic value. Itâ€™s kind of a thank you for our season, for sticking with us when things looked grim last season.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland