PITTSBURGH—The Ravens' reign unceremoniously ended with a resounding rout.
Undone by a tired defense and a tiresome offense, the defending champions were ripped off the throne with a humbling, 27-10 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday before 63,976 at Heinz Field. Staggering instead of swaggering in their AFC divisional playoff game, the Ravens suffered the worst postseason defeat of any defending champion in 18 years.The offense folded to the relentless Steelers pressure, committing four turnovers and producing a season-worst 150 yards. The defense withered from being on the field for nearly 41 minutes, giving up more points yesterday than it had in its previous five playoff wins combined (26).
One year removed from making history, the Ravens bowed out early and simply became history.
"We deserve what we got," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "It's not going to feel the same way for a long time. We're going to have that sour taste in our mouth."
The fifth-seeded Ravens (11-7), who had set an NFL record by winning their first five playoff games as a franchise, now enter a challenging off-season in which they are a projected $20.5 million over the salary cap and may be forced to endure significant turnover.
The top-seeded Steelers (14-3) advanced to the AFC championship game Sunday against the New England Patriots, but not before taking distinct pleasure in winning bragging rights over their division rival.
"They've got that swagger," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said, "but they can swagger their butts back to Baltimore."
The Ravens stumbled from the start, falling behind 20-0 before even recording a first down.
In the end, the Steelers nearly doubled the Ravens in total yards (297-150) and controlled the ball for 21 1/2 more minutes despite playing without injured running back Jerome Bettis. The Ravens managed a paltry seven first downs and delivered only three plays over 10 yards.
That performance continued a season-long, one-sided trend in which the Steelers owned the Ravens statistically. Perhaps the Ravens realized what was in store before heading to Pittsburgh.
"They wanted it worse than we did this year," Ravens free safety Rod Woodson said. "That's disappointing. You need attitude on a football team to win. There's a fine line between ... cockiness and believing in yourself. I don't know what side of that fine line we were on this year."
Said tight end Shannon Sharpe: "As painful as it is to say this, they have a better team. We came here and we got dominated."
Three plays into the game, Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac sustained a hard hit on the side of his left hip while attempting to throw a pass. The poorly underthrown ball was picked off by Chad Scott and led to a 21-yard field goal by Kris Brown.
Grbac never gained a rhythm after that, finishing 18-for-37 passing for 153 yards and three interceptions. The Ravens were 0-6 this season when Grbac threw two or more interceptions.
"Grbac doesn't like to get hit, so when we got close to him, we just tried to brush him if nothing else, just to let him know we were close by," Pittsburgh outside linebacker Joey Porter said. "When a quarterback isn't confident, that makes for a tough day. We knew he wasn't going to beat us."
Pittsburgh moved ahead 10-0 with 3:49 left in the first quarter when Amos Zereoue scored on a second effort from 1 yard out. It marked the first touchdown scored against the Ravens' defense in 55 straight playoff drives.
But like its postseason reputation, the Ravens' defense came up with a big play, as cornerback Chris McAlister made a diving interception late in the first quarter and ran it back to the Steelers' 7-yard line. Two plays later, Grbac rushed a throw that sailed ahead of Sharpe in the end zone and was picked off by Pittsburgh safety Brent Alexander.
"I wish I could have had that one back," Grbac said. "It was an opportunity where the swing of momentum could have went our way. It was devastating."
Grbac didn't receive any support. His receivers dropped six passes and his offensive line flinched in the midst of countless blitzes. His team's running game sputtered for only 22 yards.
"I am not going to sit here and place all the blame on Elvis," Sharpe said. "Offensively, nobody came to play today."
A dejected Grbac took the loss personally. He was signed this past off-season to replace Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer and admittedly fell short of expectations.
"When I got here, the only mind-set is to win the championship," said Grbac, whose contract will be extended for three years if the Ravens pick up a $6 million signing option in March. "If you come up short, you're a failure.
"I hope I'm back. We've got a good football team, and I believe we've got a good offense. We'll see."
The Ravens looked to re-create last season's Super Bowl magic midway through the third quarter, when Jermaine Lewis had an NFL-postseason-record, 88-yard punt return for a score. The Ravens' only touchdown closed the deficit to 20-10 with 7:18 left in the third quarter.
After the Steelers went three and out on offense, Grbac misfired on all three of his throws on the next Ravens' series. Pittsburgh then answered with a 12-play, 83-yard drive, which was capped by Plaxico Burress' 32-yard touchdown catch. Burress took advantage of miscommunication between Woodson and McAlister to increase Pittsburgh's lead to 27-10 just 49 seconds into the fourth quarter.
"That was a pivotal point," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's something that could have turned on a single play had we been able to make something happen. But we didn't."
Said Woodson: "We blew a coverage to give them a touchdown. That's what I'm going to remember the most out of this game."
That memory signaled the end of the Ravens' title defense as a season of hard knocks closed with the most painful fall of all, a defending champs' worst postseason defeat since Washington's 38-9 Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Raiders in 1984.
"You ride it as long as you can ride it, but you know it comes to an end sometime," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "That day has come for us now."