After a week of trash-talking, the Ravens were silenced in the end.
Unable to answer a dominating statement by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens were humbled in a 26-21 loss last night before 69,506 at PSINet Stadium and a national television audience.
The Ravens (8-5) flinched in the secondary to fall into a tie with the New York Jets for the last wild-card spots in the AFC with three games remaining. The Steelers (11-2) clinched the AFC Central title and raised their record at PSINet to 4-0.
The beating was sound and thorough as the Ravens were trounced in time of possession (41:05 to 18:55) and total yards (476 to 207).
"We did a lot of talking and we didn't back it up," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "They did a lot of talking and they did back it up."
The blame for the Ravens' first loss in December since 1998 rested heavily on the secondary.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart threw for a career-high 333 yards on 20-for-31 passing. The Ravens only stopped the Steelers on six of 15 third downs.
In the argument over the NFL's best defense this season, the Ravens bowed out ungraciously. They allowed 476 yards of total offense -- their most this season -- and Pittsburgh was playing without injured running back Jerome Bettis.
"I'm really upset," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "I haven't been this mad in a long time.
"The way we're playing in the secondary, if we play this way we're not going to win another game. I'm challenging the secondary. We have to make plays. We're just playing stupid in the secondary."
The Ravens, who had won five of their past six games in the fourth quarter, couldn't overcome the fourth-quarter odds this time.
After sputtering for the first three quarters, the Ravens managed to close within 19-14 with 6:36 remaining on a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Elvis Grbac to receiver Qadry Ismail. But the Ravens' once-vaunted defense slipped in a critical time for a stop.
Pittsburgh punched right back with another methodical drive, compliments of a guy nicknamed "Plexiglas" by the Ravens. Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress sparked the possession with a 38-yard catch -- one of the several times he beat cornerback Chris McAlister -- and fullback Dan Kreider finished it off by running in for a 4-yard touchdown standing up.
That touchdown came on Kreider's third carry of the season and increased the Steelers' lead to 26-14 with 3:05 left.
Burress, who had a career-best eight catches and 164 yards receiving, took pleasure after a week of trading words with the Ravens.
"They know my name now," Burress said.
The Ravens rallied again and cut the deficit to 26-21 when Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:14 left in the game. But the ensuing onside kick was recovered by Pittsburgh receiver Bobby Shaw, ending the Ravens' chances of sweeping Pittsburgh.
The score was not indicative of the Steelers' dominance. Pittsburgh controlled the ball for 22 more minutes than the Ravens and ran 73 plays compared to the Ravens' 53.
"They beat us pretty much across the board in every phase of the game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They got us pretty good. They are a deserving champion."
The second half began like the first one ended, with Pittsburgh running the clock. But the Steelers, who ran 17 plays and reeled off the first 11:15 of the third quarter, came away empty when kicker Kris Brown returned to his inconsistent form.
Brown sliced a 32-yard field-goal attempt that caromed off the right upright, keeping the Steelers' lead at 13-7.
It was a futile third quarter for the Ravens, who managed only 19 yards on two possessions. Grbac was 1-for-5 for 11 yards on those drives.
The hostility between the teams surfaced in the fourth quarter when taunting penalties sidetracked both squads.
On the first series of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh appeared to have converted a third down but receiver Hines Ward was called for yelling at Woodson after the catch. The 15-yard taunting penalty helped end that drive.
A 62-yard punt return by Jermaine Lewis jump-started the Ravens, putting them at Pittsburgh's 26-yard line. But the Ravens were pushed out of field-goal range when Grbac threw the ball up in the air after a third-down sack and it landed on a Steeler.
Grbac was flagged for taunting, moving the Ravens back to the 41-yard line. Facing a third-and-25, Grbac floated the ball over a wide-open Obafemi Ayanbadejo, who had 15 yards of open space ahead of him.
"I was trying to lead him on more than anything else," said Grbac, who finished 20-for-38 passing for 159 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. "Maybe have him try to catch it and get him out of bounds. It was just a miscommunication between me and the back."
Stewart, however, did not waste his opportunities. Three plays after Grbac's poor throw, Stewart found Shaw over the middle for a 90-yard touchdown. Shaw beat Duane Starks, caught the pass between the Ravens' cornerback and Woodson and ran nearly 60 yards for the score.
The longest play allowed in Ravens history staked Pittsburgh to a 19-7 lead with 8:53 left in the game.
"We may have thrown that during practice and it was the ugliest pass and route run all week," Stewart said. "And we wound up scoring a touchdown on it."
In typical fourth-quarter fashion, Grbac battled back to answer that touchdown just over two minutes later. His 14-yard pass to Qadry Ismail capped a 42-yard drive and closed the deficit to 19-14 with 6:36 remaining. It was Ismail's career-best seventh score of the season.
But for the first time this season, the Ravens' fourth-quarter comeback was rebuffed.
The Ravens, who hold a one-game lead over the 7-6 Seattle Seahawks for the final spot in the AFC playoffs, will close the season against Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota (a combined record of 16-23). If they make the playoffs, the defending Super Bowl champions expect a third game with the Steelers.
"We go around and around with these guys," Billick said. "They're going to be there [in the playoffs]. We know that. Now it's our job to see that we're there."
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