Looking for lucky 13th


Posted Dec 25, 2004


PITTSBURGH - It was the worst of games; it was the best of games.

It was the second week of the season when the Pittsburgh Steelers were drilled by their hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, 30-13, at Baltimore.

It not only ensconced the Ravens as the AFC North Division favorites, it had the Steelers wondering how far they could go with rookie Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback.

Of course, they're not wondering any longer because the Steelers haven't lost since. They are hoping to extend the winning streak to 13 games, and of course the Ravens hope it'll be as unlucky a game for the Steelers as the one in September.

"We're Pittsburgh's kryptonite," Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs boasted to the Baltimore Sun this week.

Well, the Ravens (8-6) have won the last two meetings, and are looking for their first season sweep of the Steelers (13-1) in team history.

More importantly, the Ravens are playing for a playoff berth. Currently, they are out of the playoff money. The Jacksonville Jaguars would be the sixth seed if the season were to end today, so a loss would mean the end of the season for the Ravens.

The Steelers need to win today to clinch a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. But, as Hines Ward likes to say, you can "throw the records out the book" for this game, which kicks off at one o'clock.

"I would pretty much say it's a rivalry of hate," said Plaxico Burress, who's hoping to return from a four-game injury layoff.

"I don't think there are too many friends on either sideline. They don't like us and we don't like them. Their fans don't like us and our fans don't like their fans. It's always a good game but for us, we want to win because they beat us the last two times. They were AFC North champs and they kind of threw it in our face a little bit."

The loss to the Ravens is the Steelers' only blemish this year. Roethlisberger replaced injured Tommy Maddox early in the second half with the Steelers trailing 20-0. Roethlisberger threw a pair of touchdown passes to pull the Steelers to within 23-13 with 8:29 remaining, but the rookie's second interception of the game was returned 51 yards for the clinching touchdown by Chris McAlister. It's McAlister's only interception of the season.

"It was a blur," Roethlisberger said of the game. "That's the thing about it; I'm trying to black a lot of this stuff out. There are so many great players on that defense."

Roethlisberger, a savvy rookie, takes credit for the loss.

"I took that blame on my shoulders, throwing interceptions, especially the one at the end," he said. "I think we've come a long way from that though. We eliminated a lot of the silly little mistakes we made in that game."

Roethlisberger has thrown only eight interceptions in 256 pass attempts since that game. His passer rating since Baltimore is 97.5. Overall, Roethlisberger's passer rating is 96.3, fourth in the AFC.

"He really is managing the game well, much like last year when we had Kyle Boller," said Ravens coach Brian Billick.

Huh?

Last year, Boller, then a rookie, had a passer rating of 62.4. The Ravens won the division on the strength of Jamal Lewis' 2,066 rushing yards and a defense that ranked third in the NFL by allowing 271.3 yards per game.

This year, Lewis is struggling with an injured ankle. His 813 rushing yards are less than Steelers' leader Jerome Bettis' 824 rushing yards. The Ravens' defense, averaging the same 271.1 yards per game to rank sixth, is led by Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis, Suggs, Ed Reed and McAlister. Only McAlister is considered unworthy of his Pro Bowl berth.

The Ravens' offense is primarily responsible for the team losing three of its last four games. In games against Philadelphia, New England and Indianapolis, the offense scored just two touchdowns combined.

The return of tight end Todd Heap from an ankle injury has boosted the Ravens' 30th-ranked offense. In his three games back, Heap has caught 12 passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns. He injured his ankle against the Steelers and was notoriously pushed by Joey Porter on the next snap after limping to the line.

"I think Heap will be the most pumped up for this one," Boller said.

That's assuming plenty, since 53 Steelers hope to avenge their only loss of the season and become the AFC's clear-cut favorite.



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