Today Pittsburgh, tomorrow the playoffs.
The Ravens (6-7) overcame a huge obstacle yesterday with the win against the Steelers (5-8) at Three Rivers Stadium, where this organization had not won since 1989, dating to its days as the Cleveland Browns.
Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail set a team record with 258 receiving yards, 11th-best all-time in the NFL, and caught three touchdown passes, including one of 76 yards. Ismail's three touchdown receptions tied the team record set by former receiver Michael Jackson in 1996.
Ismail's 76-yard reception came with 3: 19 left in the third quarter to put the Ravens ahead 31-17, and the team held on despite an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Tomczak to receiver Kordell Stewart with 2: 45 left in the game.
But the Steelers couldn't recover the onside kick after the ball failed to go the required 10 yards, and running back Priest Holmes put the game away with a 28-yard run to the Steelers' 10-yard line with 1: 53 remaining and Pittsburgh out of time outs.
"This organization, this group of guys, this team, this city, has never played a game in December in the last four years that could bring you to .500, that could have playoff ramifications," said Billick. "Now, whether we get there or not, I don't know. But like I told the guys in there, you're not going to find out until you get to 9-7. Then we'll see.
"Someone will come and tell us if we're in the playoffs or not," said Billick.
"We have to be focused for New Orleans Sunday's opponent. Nine-and-seven doesn't happen until we get to 7-7 first. We have progressed from training camp from talking about being a .500 team to where we're at now. Now, it's time to raise the bar just a little bit for everybody."
No one raised his game yesterday more than Ismail. The Ravens were without their two fastest receivers in Jermaine Lewis (knee injury) and Patrick Johnson (strained calf). But Ismail tortured Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington and safety Scott Shields.
Ismail went from the Ravens' most consistent receiver to big-play weapon yesterday with touchdown receptions of 54, 59 and 76 yards. He played the entire second half despite suffering stomach spasms after his 54-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, which gave the Ravens a 17-10 lead.
On the play, Ismail caught the ball at the Pittsburgh 30, was smashed in the back by Shields, but still managed to run the remaining distance despite briefly grabbing his stomach.
"It feels good now, but it hurts," Ismail said of the stomach problems. "I think a win cures a lot of your aches and pains."
A lot of the Ravens were breathing sighs of relief. Pittsburgh had beaten the Ravens five straight times and the Ravens had never won here on the road. The Ravens have won three of their past four this season, and Pittsburgh lost its fifth straight to an AFC Central opponent.
"This is a feeling of redemption for me," said veteran Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, one of five former Cleveland Browns still on the roster. "I couldn't believe we won. I've been ticked off in this locker room something like 10 straight times. We've barely won here. Actually, it's been never."
The Ravens weren't dominant. Pittsburgh had nearly a nine-minute advantage in time of possession and had 21 first downs compared with the Ravens' 12. But Pittsburgh could not get a handle on the Ravens' offense, which delivered several big plays for the second consecutive week. Banks completed only eight of 26 passes for 268 yards, and may have thrown for 400 if his receivers hadn't dropped seven more or had big gains called back because of penalties.
But running back Priest Holmes, filling in for the injured Errict Rhett (bruised ribs), rushed 18 times for 130 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown on the Ravens' first series of the game.
If the Ravens are going to develop into a legitimate playoff contender, they'll have to be able to run off some 12- to 15-play drives in December. But for the time being, they are entertaining to watch. The Ravens have scored 34, 23, 41 and 31 points in the past four games.
"In the first half, I missed a couple of throws and we had some drops," said Banks. "Actually, I've never played so poorly in the first half of a game and been with a team that still won. But we've got a lot of confidence in each other. I continue to have faith in the receivers, and they have faith in me that we can make the big plays."
Ismail's 59-yard touchdown reception occurred with 8: 28 left in the third quarter. He ran a post over the middle, leaving Washington and Shields behind, to put the Ravens ahead 24-17. On his last touchdown catch, of 76 yards, Washington fell down along the left sideline and Banks connected with Ismail around the Pittsburgh 40 as Ismail jogged the remaining distance.
"I've been with Qadry a long time," said Billick of Ismail, a born-again Christian. "Coming out of college, he's always had that kind of ability, but he's grown up. He's shown a mental, emotional and, quite frankly for him, a spiritual toughness that has raised his level of play. The old Qadry couldn't have done that. But now an older, wiser man can."
The Ravens' defense wasn't dominating either. It did just enough to get by. Pittsburgh was seven of 16 on third downs, and the Steelers had 352 yards of total offense. The team got an excellent job from its defensive line, particularly Burnett and tackles Larry Webster and Tony Siragusa.
But Tomczak completed 22 of 41 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Ravens cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister had trouble controlling the Pittsburgh passing game, which is surprising, because the Steelers entered the game ranked No. 26 in passing.
The Steelers scored on their first two drives of the game and Tomczak threw touchdown passes of 11 and 6 yards, both against Jenkins. But the Ravens weren't too concerned about their defensive problems yesterday.
A win is a win, even if it's ugly, especially against the Steelers.
"They obviously had a good plan. They did some things offensively that gave our defense some troubles," said Billick. "I sense, particularly the veterans guys, yeah, this does mean a lot to them. This is another one of those demons that they are exorcising."