PITTSBURGH - Like their reputation for being a smash-mouth team, the Ravens' yearlong boasts about being a Super Bowl team were unmercifully laid to rest yesterday.
Unable to establish the run on offense or stop it on defense, the Ravens took a resounding shot to the gut in a 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers before 64,227 at Heinz Field.
What survived this onslaught was the Ravens' playoff hopes, however faint they may be after losing for the fourth time in five games. A win by Buffalo (9-6) or Denver (9-6) - both of whom play at home and against teams with nothing to gain - would officially eliminate the Ravens (8-7) from the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
But unofficially, like their once-stout run defense, the Ravens' playoff aspirations were shredded yesterday.
"We've underachieved," Ravens defensive end Tony Weaver said. "We had high goals. Our goal was to go to the Super Bowl. Right now, our fate is not in our hands anymore.
"This one kills. There's no doubt. Anytime you come into a season like this and think about the players we have, to come out here and not perform up to those expectations, it hurts a lot."
These are the same wounds inflicted before by teams in the elite class of the Steelers (14-1), who won their 13th straight game to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Once again, the Ravens continually drove into their opponent's territory only to come away empty nearly every time. Five trips inside Pittsburgh's 36-yard line produced a measly seven points.
Once again, the Ravens couldn't match the brute strength of a physical team, getting blown off the line of scrimmage. They allowed a season-worst 183 yards rushing, the fourth time they have given up more than 140 yards on the ground to a winning team.
All of these troubles have sabotaged a one-time 7-3 Ravens team, snowballing into the worst second-half collapse under coach Brian Billick's six-year watch.
Questions floated throughout the Ravens' locker room about their chemistry, their tackling and their offensive play-calling.
Linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's undisputed leader, exited the locker room without speaking to the media for the first time this season, leaving safety Ed Reed to make sense of a team unmistakably out of sync.
"We shouldn't be in this position," Reed said. "To shoot for the Super Bowl, it's going to come with conviction. To come back and do what we did, it's got to be humbling to you. Something needs to be corrected."
What needs to be corrected is the Ravens' history of playing winning teams for a half before falling apart in the second.
Right on cue, the Ravens, who were trailing 10-7 at halftime, found themselves on their heels from the opening drive of the third quarter.
Running 12 straight times - and primarily up the middle of the defense - the Steelers marched the length of the field to the Ravens' 2. Then, off a fake to running back Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger floated a short pass to uncovered tight end Jerame Tuman for the touchdown.
Although Roethlisberger hurt his ribs on a hit by Terrell Suggs on the play, the damage from that 8 1/2 -minute marathon drive had been done to the Ravens. It staked the Steelers to a 17-7 lead and paved the way for Bettis' 117 yards rushing, his first 100-yard game vs. the Ravens since 1997.
"I'm pretty frustrated," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "It's always a physical battle [with Pittsburgh] and we always respond. We did not today."
It marked the fourth time that the Ravens had surrendered 100 yards to a running back this season. In their previous four seasons, they had only allowed seven backs to reach that mark.
This grind-it-out game plan was key in the Steelers controlling the clock for nearly 34 minutes (which led to no punts for Pittsburgh) and exploiting the Ravens' countless missed tackles.
Asked about the tackling, Nolan said, "It obviously wasn't what it should be. It goes without saying. There were a lot of disappointing things and that's one I would add to the list."
That list is equally long for the Ravens' offense. At the top is their nonexistent running game.
Jamal Lewis was held to 26 yards on 14 carries, a career low for him when he has double-digit attempts.
"You knew coming in: the team that was going to control the line of scrimmage was going to control the game," Billick said.
But Lewis criticized the play-calling rather than his blockers. About seven weeks after he complained about not getting enough carries, the defending NFL rushing champion questioned why the Ravens strung out plays to the outside instead of running in between the tackles.
"We had some room but it just wasn't where we were going," Lewis said. "A lot of guys know we run a lot of stretch runs and they were keeping it contained outside with [outside linebackers] Joey Porter and James Harrison and forcing us back inside.
"We're a downhill team. Our offensive line fights and strives for blowing guys off the ball. That's where the tempo should have been set by running straight at them. I think we gave [inside linebackers] James Farrior and Larry Foote the day off. We didn't attack them."
With their ground game stalled, the Ravens chose to attack through the air, calling 36 passing plays compared to 17 running ones (excluding quarterback scrambles).
That strategy failed to work much better. Their pass protection was porous, as backup linebacker Harrison (cut by the Ravens in minicamp) repeatedly pressured quarterback Kyle Boller. Their receivers continued to drop passes (even with Travis Taylor inactive), whether it was dropping them when being hit (Randy Hymes) or before being hit (Clarence Moore).
As a result, the Ravens rung up some yards (248) but few points. The Ravens scored on their second drive - Lewis' 5-yard run - but never got closer than the Pittsburgh 25-yard line the rest of the game.
"This game is about scoring points," Billick said. "You don't get anything for stats."
This was the ninth time in 15 games in which the Ravens scored one or no offensive touchdowns.
"It's something that we're going to have to break out of," said Boller, who was 18-for-32 for 177 yards and an interception. "I'm not sure those guys don't think we can put it in there. It's just when we've had the opportunity to do it, we haven't taken advantage of it."
Failing to take advantage of their opportunities this season has been their ultimate undoing.
That's why their playoff chances depend on them beating Miami, Buffalo losing at home to Pittsburgh and Denver losing at home to Indianapolis. But with the Steelers and Colts likely to sit their starters because their postseason seed is secure, the Ravens have little hope of playing beyond Sunday.
"It's disheartening to think that we're going to be one of those teams that's watching everyone else play in January," defensive end Marques Douglas said. "We want to be one of those elite teams. This year, we're not."
It's a long shot
With yesterday's loss, the Ravens need to beat Miami next week and hope for Denver and Buffalo to lose to create a multi-team tie at 9-7, which could include the Jaguars. A look at the Ravens' chances of making the playoffs:
Strength of victory If the Ravens, Jaguars and Broncos all finish 9-7, the playoff tiebreaker will come down to strength of victory (combined winning percentage of teams they've beaten). Here's how the teams stand after Week 16: RavensPittsburgh (14-1), Cincinnati (7-8), Washington (5-10), Buffalo (9-6), Cleveland (3-12), N.Y. Jets (10-5), Dallas (6-9), N.Y. Giants (5-10). 59-61 (.492)JaguarsBuffalo (9-6), Denver (9-6), Tennessee (4-11), Kansas City (7-8) , Indianapolis (12-3), Detroit (6-9), Chicago (5-10), Green Bay (9-6). 61-59 (.508)BroncosKansas City (7-8), San Diego (11-4), Tampa Bay (5-10), Carolina (7-8), Oakland (5-10), Houston (7-8), New Orleans (7-8), Miami (4-11), Tennessee (4-11). 57-78 (.422)Note: If the Bills lose to the Steelers, they would finish 9-7 and be eliminated based on a 5-7 conference record.