If the Ravens had to pick one game not to blow this season, they picked the right one.
If they were going to ruin their season giving away big second-half leads every week, at least they held on to beat the Steelers yesterday.
"We just wanted to win a game, period, after what we have gone through," offensive lineman Wally Williams said, "but it's sweet that it was the Steelers."
Beating them doesn't make up for the three season-wrecking losses to the Bengals and Jaguars in which a combined 38 points in halftime leads were blown, but it was medicine for the players' sanity, the fans' patience and PSL sales.
The Steelers are the defending conference champions, the best team in the Ravens' division and the longtime archrivals of the franchise formerly known as the Cleveland Browns. The Browns/Ravens had not beaten them since 1993.
"We're out of the playoffs this year," Ravens safety Bennie Thompson said, "but this was our playoff game."
They celebrated their 31-17 victory as such, enjoying the moment after weeks of frustration.
"I read in the paper where [Steelers back] Jerome Bettis said we were the same, old Browns," Thompson said. "The same, old Browns just stuck it [to them]."
Thompson, the Ravens' most emotional player, had a particularly fine time.
The Ravens are five games behind the Steelers in the standings, but Thompson wasn't letting the facts get in the way of a good time.
"The Steelers aren't as good as everyone thinks they are, or as good as they themselves think they are," Thompson said. "They're afraid of us. They don't play physical ball against us like other teams. They play timid against us, like they're walking on eggshells and afraid to break the eggs."
Afraid of the Ravens? Timid? If that were true, how did the Steelers win seven games in a row between the teams before yesterday?
"Because we always had one phase not clicking, either the offense or defense or kicking game," Thompson said. "We had it all clicking today, and look what happened. We busted them good. And I let them know about it."
No doubt. In today's NFL, to the victor goes the right to talk trash. Ravens tight end Eric Green, a former Steeler, taunted the Steelers' bench late in the game.
That was weak, but it was hard to blame the Ravens for luxuriating in the gainful day. They haven't had many lately, particularly against the Steelers.
"I think, finally, we got that Pittsburgh stigma, I hope, off our backs," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "It's all I've heard since I've been here. We needed to win, plus we needed to win over Pittsburgh."
They built their lead in the first half, just as they did in the losses to the Bengals and Jaguars last month. After Pittsburgh took a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Ravens scored 17 straight points before halftime. Receiver Derrick Alexander had a career quarter with five catches for 166 yards.
"This had to be the No. 1 game in my career," Alexander said.
The 14-point halftime lead made it impossible not to think of the Ravens' recent losses.
"We came in here and talked about it at halftime," Thompson said. "We talked about not letting it happen again."
The Steelers then drove to a touchdown on their first series of the second half. It seemed only a matter of when, not if, the Steelers would win.
"You couldn't help" wondering if it was happening again, Ravens guard Jonathan Ogden said.
It wasn't. The Steelers failed to cross the 50 on two series, and the Ravens drove to a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Vinny Testaverde, who was 0-7 as a starter against the Steelers before yesterday, passed 3 yards to Green for the touchdown.
Veteran Ravens-watchers knew that 12 minutes was plenty of time for the team to blow a two-touchdown lead -- the Jaguars caught up in six -- but the Steelers never scored.
"Finally," Marchibroda said, "we made some big plays late in the game."
When did the Ravens realize they weren't going to give away the big lead this time?
"Late," Ogden said, smiling, "like when we made that last third-and-two [with 90 seconds left]."
Testaverde dropped to his knee on the last two plays, running out the clock. Who thought they would need that play on this day?
It was surely a sour day in Cleveland, where the fans endured years of Steelers domination before the Browns pulled out of town. The loyal Dawg Pounders would have given just about anything for a big Browns win over the Steelers.
Instead, Baltimore gets it in the sunset of a disappointing season.
"It's been a hard year for us mentally," Williams said. "This makes everyone feel better."
The locker room was crowded, hot and joyful for a change. Thompson was still talking the talk almost an hour after the final whistle.
"This has to be the best 4-9 team in the league," Thompson said. "We have been in every game and lost so many at the end. Maybe it got to be a mental thing, I don't know. But we weren't going to let it happen today. Not against the Steelers."
Pub Date: 12/02/96