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.
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.