Steelers 31, Ravens 18

The battle for first place in the AFC North began tilting toward the Pittsburgh Steelers more than an hour before kickoff today, when Baltimore Ravens quarterback Chris Redman could not shake numbness in his right foot that apparently came from recent back problems. Concern is such that a MRI exam was scheduled for Monday.

"My lower back was stiff the last couple of weeks," Redman said after the Steelers' 31-18 victory before a record-tying crowd of 69,638. "Friday, it must have hit a nerve or something and the pain ran down my leg. I tried to get the feeling back [during about an hour of warmups], but it never did. . . . My toes all are numb now. I've had [back trouble] before, but never this bad."

Before backup Jeff Blake, who had minimal practice since the start of the regular season eight weeks ago, could take a snap the Steelers (4-3) had a 7-0 lead. Against a defense minus injured linebacker Ray Lewis for the third straight game, Pittsburgh stretched it to 28-3 at the half on two Amos Zereoue touchdown runs and two Tommy Maddox-to-Plaxico Burress scoring passes, and gained sole possession of first in the division over the Cleveland Browns. Baltimore (3-4) fell to third.

"You saw what championship-caliber football looked like in the first half," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said. "On offense, their 11 kicked the [stuffing] out of us. On defense, their 11 kicked the [stuffing] out of us. On special teams, they also kicked the [stuffing] out of us. Our guys got schooled in the first half. They found out how far they have to go.

"The second half they took the challenge [and outscored the Steelers]. That's what we're going to focus on."

In all, the Ravens lost two fumbles and Blake was intercepted three times in his first start since mid-November 2000 for the New Orleans Saints. The Ravens pulled to within what proved to be the final margin, 13 points, with 11-plus minutes left, but tailback Jamal Lewis lost a fumble and Blake threw two interceptions directly at Steelers.

"That's the toughest thing you can ask a quarterback to do, take none of the reps during the week and try to execute effectively," Billick said. "But it's got to be better because that's what he's paid to do."

Blake alluded to some of the 13 Baltimore penalties and situations in which he should have been more prudent.

"We just couldn't get out of that penalty mode in the first half," he said. "I think we moved the ball very well for a team that had a quarterback [who] found out he was playing right before the game. . . . I don't think it was rust [on his interceptions]. I think I just forced it instead of throwing the ball away."

The Steelers took a 14-0 lead on their first two possessions -- and upped the advantage to 21-0 early in the second quarter after recovering a Robert Tate fumble on a kickoff at the Baltimore 15. After a Matt Stover field goal, Antwaan Randle El returned the kickoff 37 yards and Zereoue capped a 49-yard drive with a one-yard plunge for the fourth first-half touchdown.

Previously, the Ravens had given up lots of yards but not many touchdowns. In addition to Lewis (shoulder) the Baltimore defense was without end Michael McCrary (knee).

"We lost our composure a couple of times," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "But there were a lot of positive things. It's still a long season. We've beat the odds so far and we will continue to beat the odds."

The Steelers played without tailback Jerome Bettis (knee) the entire game and lost Burress shortly before halftime, when he and backup Ravens defensive back James Trapp were ejected from the game for personal fouls after a Trapp interception.

"Would you be angry if someone kicked you in your face?" Burress said. "I'm a lot more important to my team than he is to his [and] I apologized to my coach and my teammates."

After a one-yard sprint around right end by Blake and an 18-yard catch and run by tight end John Jones, Baltimore was within two touchdowns of taking the lead with lots of time remaining. But the Steelers rarely seemed in much danger, although Lewis's fumble came at the Pittsburgh 38.

Maddox completed his first 11 passes and was 18 of 24 for 172 yards in all. The fumble he seemed to lose was judged an incomplete pass on a replay challenge not long before Zereoue's score lifted the advantage to 28-3. He later had a sprained left ankle, but returned after two possessions.

After losing the opening two games, the Steelers seem to be hitting the stride many expected from the start. Maddox mostly has played exceptionally after replacing Kordell Stewart late in the third game.

"It's just a matter of us putting everything together," Zereoue said. "Now we're playing as a team. We're clicking and we just have to keep it going."

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis (31) is overwhelmed by the Steelers' defense during the first half, when Baltimore fell behind 28-3.Pittsburgh's Amos Zereoue outruns Peter Boulware for one of his two touchdowns.Plaxico Burress, right, celebrates a touchdown at Chris McAlister's expense.