PITTSBURGH—The Ravens may have gotten an answer to their "Why Not Us?" motto. The Pittsburgh Steelers had 397 yards of total offense, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. They had a nearly 11-minute advantage in time of possession, converted on seven of 11 third-down situations, punted only twice and converted two turnovers into touchdowns.
Final score: Steelers 31, Ravens 17, before a crowd of 57,241 at Three Rivers Stadium yesterday.
AFC championship has to go through Pittsburgh, then the Ravens may have to take another route. The Ravens, formerly the Cleveland Browns, have lost seven straight to the Steelers.
"It's just one game, and we're not counting ourselves out," said Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who suffered a rib injury on a 6-yard touchdown run midway in the first quarter, but said it had little effect the rest of the game.
"It's a long season. We still realize they are the AFC champions. Until someone knocks them off, they are the top dogs," he said.
Ravens running back Leroy Hoard said: "It's sad. You know no matter what you do, you have to beat Pittsburgh. In order to win this division, you have to beat them. They're on top right now. There's no way around it."
The loss was a humbling experience for the Ravens (1-1). This was a prime time to beat Pittsburgh, which was without three of its top linebackers, its two top pass rushers, involved in a quarterback controversy and coming off a season-opening loss to Jacksonville.
But instead of folding, the Steelers (1-1) showed the poise and perseverance that carried them to the Super Bowl last season.
They ran at will against the Ravens, especially on the perimeter, and scored the first three times they had the ball. Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis finished with 116 yards on 21 carries, and Erric Pegram had 60 on 11 attempts.
Even Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak, who had a 31-22 record as a starter during 11 previous years in the league, completed 18 of 25 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
"I can't blame any particular group," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who was without starting defensive end Anthony Pleasant. "When you get bounced around like we did, it was a total effort."
"They were ready to play and the better team won," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "I didn't think we were quite ready to play as we have been in the past. It was not a matter of effort, you have to learn what the NFL is about. You have to play from the top of your head to the bottom of your shoes every play."
Despite the way Pittsburgh kicked the Ravens around, Baltimore still had a chance to get back into the game. But on first-and-goal from the Steelers' 2 with 5: 09 left and trailing 31-17, Earnest Hunter was hit and fumbled while trying to dive over the goal line. Chad Brown made the recovery.
Hunter, who had problems with fumbles last preseason and mishandled a kickoff in last week's opening win, declined comment. The second-year player wouldn't have been in the game except that starter Leroy Hoard's shoe was pulled off on the previous play when he gained 10 yards, and Earnest Byner was out with a toe injury.
"I don't know what other choices I had other than throwing the football," said Marchibroda. "That's what every player is there for. When he comes off the bench, he has to be ready to play and Earnest Hunter is no different."
"I should have been in there," said Hoard. "I thought I would go over, get the shoe on and return for the next play. It just didn't work out that way."
Neither did the Ravens' game plan. They wanted to run the ball, which they did for 97 yards, thanks largely to Hoard, who finished with 54 on 13 carries. But they didn't want to get behind and then have to face Pittsburgh's blitzes.
The Ravens fell behind on their second offensive play when receiver Michael Jackson ran an out pattern and Testaverde threw too far inside. The pass was picked off by cornerback Rod Woodson and returned down the left sideline for a 43-yard touchdown just 54 seconds into the game.
"It wasn't his fault as much as it was mine," said Testaverde. "I gave them a gift. It was one of those passes you want back right after it leaves your hand."
The next 29 minutes were offensive shows by both teams. Testaverde scored on a 6-yard run on the Ravens' next possession to tie the game, and Bettis came back to score on a 1-yard run to finish a nine-play, 70-yard Steelers drive on Pittsburgh's next possession.
Nearly six minutes later, Testaverde threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Alexander on a quick post pattern, and Tomczak countered with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Charles Johnson with 8: 09 left in the half.
But with 6: 33 left in the half, Testaverde was sandwiched by linebacker Carlos Emmons and defensive end Kevin Henry during a scrambling attempt, and his fumble was recovered by Woodson at the Ravens' 43.
Six plays later, Tomczak threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Andre Hastings for a 28-14 lead with 3: 13 left in the quarter and the Ravens never recovered.
"I tried to say this all week about Pittsburgh, that when they come off the ball, they come to meet you and you better be ready," said Ravens safety Eric Turner. "I don't know if some of the guys were ready for this."
"We've had better days," said Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett. "But we'll be back. I promise you that. I guarantee it."