PITTSBURGH, Dec. 26 -- The Baltimore Ravens seemed stunned as they sat in their locker room after their 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon, their playoff hopes all but extinguished after their fourth loss in five weeks.
This was not a position the Ravens expected to be in at the start of the season, when they openly talked of going to the Super Bowl, or even earlier this week, when linebacker Terrell Suggs proclaimed Baltimore to be "Pittsburgh kryptonite."
Pittsburgh gets a scare with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger grimacing after a late hit from the Ravens' Terrell Suggs. Roethlisberger returned to the game.
"We've underachieved," Ravens defensive end Anthony Weaver said. "We had high goals, to go to Jacksonville and the Super Bowl. Right now, our fate's not in our hands anymore. Next week we're going to go out and play and play for pride, because this one definitely put us behind the eight ball."
Baltimore (8-7) has not been mathematically eliminated from wild-card consideration, but its chances are growing slimmer. The Ravens need to beat Miami (3-11) at home Sunday and then hope that Denver (9-6) and Buffalo (9-6) lose, which would force a tiebreaker that could come down to strength of victory or strength of schedule. Even so, the Ravens would need help from other teams to win the tiebreaker and Jacksonville (8-7) is in the hunt.
The Steelers, who won their team-record 13th game in a row, have no such worries. Pittsburgh (14-1), which clinched the AFC North title earlier this month, secured home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
But Pittsburgh got a bit of a scare in the third quarter when Suggs drove quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into the ground just moments after the rookie threw his second touchdown pass of the game. Suggs was called for roughing the passer, and Roethlisberger injured his ribs and was slow to get up. Roethlisberger (14 for 19, 221 yards) returned for three more plays (one of which was a 26-yard pass to Plaxico Burress) before being replaced by Tommy Maddox.
"He wanted to come back, but we didn't want to put him back in there," Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher said of Roethlisberger. "I saw him throw the ball well [on the sidelines], but he grimaced every time he threw it."
The Ravens had been confident they could go into Heinz Field and leave with a victory, something no other team had done this season; after all, they are the only team to have beaten Pittsburgh. But the Steelers won by doing the things that Baltimore prides itself on doing, namely running the ball well and stopping the run.
Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis was held to 26 yards on 14 carries, a paltry 1.9 yards-per-carry average, but he scored the Ravens' touchdown on a five-yard run in the first quarter. Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, on the other hand, ran for 117 yards on 27 carries, and moved past Eric Dickerson into fourth place on the NFL's all-time rushing list; Bettis has rushed for 13,294 yards in his 12-year career. The Steelers rushed for 183 yards.
One of the defining moments of the game came midway through the second quarter on a six-yard Bettis run. Linebacker Ray Lewis appeared to have Bettis lined up for the tackle, but the player nicknamed "the Bus" plowed into Lewis and sent him backward. The crowd of 64,227 inside Heinz Field roared as the replay was shown on the giant video screen.
Lewis, who played with a cast on his fractured right wrist, left the somber Ravens locker room without speaking with reporters.
"It boils down to us running the football; that is how we are going to win a football game," Bettis said. "There comes a point in every game where you have to test their will and see if they can stop you. We ran it, we ran it, we ran it."
That was never more true than on the opening drive of the second half. The Steelers controlled the ball for 8 minutes 34 seconds and marched 71 yards for a touchdown, scoring on a two-yard pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Jerame Tuman that gave Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead. At one point, Pittsburgh ran the ball on 12 consecutive plays, picking up 62 yards.
"That's the kind of stuff we used to do," Baltimore guard Mike Flynn said.
But it's not the kind of thing the Ravens' defense is used to doing. Baltimore created two turnovers -- an interception by safety Will Demps and a forced fumble by safety Ed Reed -- but the Ravens didn't tackle well and failed to record a sack or really pressure the quarterback.
"The missed tackles and not playing well against the run -- that's a strength for us," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "There's been a time or two this year when it hasn't been, but overall, even per carry we're second in the league [3.4 yards per carry]. We certainly weren't today."
Quarterback Kyle Boller completed 18 of 32 passes for 177 yards. He was harassed all day, mainly by linebacker James Harrison. Late in the first quarter, Harrison crushed Boller as he attempted a pass, and linebacker Joey Porter intercepted the ball. When Baltimore faced a fourth and four with less than eight minutes left, Harrison leapt over running back Chester Taylor, who went low for a block, and batted down Boller's pass.
It was that kind of afternoon for the Ravens. "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 and this year, we're not."
Ravens Notes: Travis Taylor, the Ravens' leading receiver through the first 14 games, practiced throughout the week but was inactive because of a sore back. Randy Hymes played for the first time since Dec. 5 and led the Ravens with 55 yards on four catches. . . . Left guard Edwin Mulitalo left the game in the first half with a torn left triceps and did not return.