History prevailed over irony in the Ravens' regular-season finale.
Nearly 4 1/2 hours after the Ravens clinched their first division title with help from the unlikeliest of teams - the Cleveland Browns - Jamal Lewis secured his place in the NFL record books before a boisterous crowd of 70,001 at M&T Bank Stadium last night.
In the Ravens' 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis crashed up the single-season rushing list with 114 yards rushing, finishing as the league's second-most prolific single-season rusher and 39 yards shy of Eric Dickerson's 1984 NFL mark of 2,105 yards. He became the fifth player in the NFL's 83-year history to eclipse 2,000 yards.
An intense yet meaningless game ended with Matt Stover's 47-yard field goal 3:28 into overtime, which stopped the Ravens' five-game losing streak to their division rival.
"I'm not disappointed," said Lewis, who capped a Pro Bowl season with 2,066 yards. "The opportunity was there and we went at it. Second is good."
Much of the drama was removed courtesy of the Browns, the team that replaced Art Modell's club when he relocated his franchise to Baltimore in 1996. The Browns upset the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday afternoon to hand the AFC North crown to the Ravens before Modell's final regular-season game as an NFL owner.
As the AFC's fourth seed, the Ravens (10-6) draw a wild-card home game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, when they'll rekindle an old division rivalry with the fifth-seeded Tennessee Titans (12-4). The Ravens have won five straight times against the Titans, a streak that dates back to the Ravens' Super Bowl.
"I never thought I'd see the day I would be rooting for Cleveland again," said Modell, who missed his first home game in Baltimore because of a respiratory infection and watched from home. "[Browns president] Carmen Policy sent me a late Christmas gift."
With this city's first NFL division title since 1977 (when the Colts captured the AFC East) locked up, the only suspense remaining revolved around Lewis.
The 24-year-old running back put the record crowd on edge by gaining 73 yards on his first seven carries before tailing off in the final three quarters with 41 yards on his last 20 attempts.
Lewis reached the elite 2,000-yard level midway through the first quarter with a 9-yard burst up the gut of the defense that required three Steelers to bring him down. One play later, he raced untouched for a 25-yard touchdown, passing O.J. Simpson and Terrell Davis on the all-time single-season list.
By the middle of the third quarter, Lewis went over the 100-yard mark for the 12th time this season, becoming only the fifth player to achieve a dozen 100-yard rushing games in a season. That same 11-yard run also moved him ahead of Barry Sanders for the second-best single season in history with 2,056.
"For him to be No. 2 all-time, we are proud of that," center Mike Flynn said. "We won the game and the division. This is a season I will always remember."
Although the game was anticlimactic as far as the playoff picture, it was far from a bye week.
From the face-to-face screaming match between Ray Lewis and Joey Porter at the coin flip to Ravens punter Dave Zastudil's nose getting broken, a terse and physical tone was established from the onset.
For that reason, Ravens coach Brian Billick played his starters until the game-winning kick in overtime despite having to come back and start the playoffs on a shortened week.
"This is the Pittsburgh Steelers," Billick said. "It's a rivalry. You can't cheat the game. You can't cheat the fans."
Said linebacker Ray Lewis: "The coach said we're here to win a football game. We had to get the monkey off our back."
Defense kept the Ravens in the game while their special teams continually tried to give it away.
Backed up on their 19-yard line, the Steelers caught the Ravens off-guard with a fake punt. Taking a short pass from punter Josh Miller, Pittsburgh's Chris Hope scored on an 81-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 7:45 left in the third quarter.
Minutes later, Pittsburgh capitalized on a 29-yard punt by Kyle Boller, the Ravens' backup quarterback who filled in for Zastudil for one punt.
The Steelers only needed to drive 19 yards, five of which came off an illegal-use-of-hands penalty on third down against Maake Kemoeatu, to set up a 42-yard field goal by Jeff Reed for their first lead of the game.
"I give Bill Cowher a lot of credit," Billick said. "That's a hell of a time to do the fake punt."
Outside of the special-teams lapses, the Ravens' defense refused to budge. The Ravens didn't allow Pittsburgh within the Baltimore 24-yard line and have not surrendered an offensive touchdown in 10 quarters.
The Steelers managed 214 yards of total offense as quarterback Tommy Maddox seemed more concerned about surviving than converting third downs. The Ravens sacked Maddox five times, intercepted him three times and batted five of his passes down at the line.
"I think our defense was absolutely magnificent," Billick said.
While the Ravens' third playoff berth in four seasons was long secured, the long-awaited win over Pittsburgh tested their patience.
The Ravens had two shots to win in the final 46 seconds of the fourth quarter, but Stover's 52-yard field goal and Wade Richey's 51-yarder both fell short.
After the defense stopped Pittsburgh without a first down on the opening series of overtime, quarterback Anthony Wright hit Marcus Robinson for a 22-yard pass, the third connection of 20 or more yards between the teammates.
Four plays after that big throw, Stover drilled a 47-yarder for the Ravens' first win over Pittsburgh at home since 1996.
But the Ravens have moved on to another familiar foe, the Titans.
"It's an old AFC Central rivalry," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "Let's see if they remember us. I know we remember them."
Sun staff writer Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
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