PITTSBURGH - The K-word was never heard in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field yesterday. The Ravens weren't the Steelers' kryptonite after all. The lead uniforms Jerome Bettis and Co. wore must have worked.
The word "Super" did surface, though. As in, "So much for the Super Bowl." There was nothing super about the Ravens, even when the unit that was supposed to steamroll a path to Jacksonville, Fla., got steamrolled instead. Now, in the final week of the regular season, they're on the outside looking in.
Nothing like that was supposed to happen to this team, if the talk that had flowed throughout the organization for so long was to be believed. The problem with this team, this season and in this game, was that the Ravens were apparently the last people still buying their own hype.
Perspective may be setting in now, after a month of disturbing signs and depressing losses. The last belief, about the defense imposing its will and being the aggressor, no longer holds up - and that one had been clung to by the remaining diehards around the country who saw the Ravens as a playoff sleeper. Along with it disappeared the less-supportable notion that the Ravens have the Steelers' number.
The truth lodged in a lot of throats, but to their credit, several players managed to cough it out. "We wanted to go to the Super Bowl after the great year we had [in 2003]," said safety Ed Reed, "and to come back and do what we did, it has to be humbling to you."
What they did, yesterday and throughout the season, was write check after check with their mouths that the rest of their bodies couldn't cash. Terrell Suggs' kryptonite crack was only the latest. There was a time when such comments never bit the Ravens back, but now, the bite wounds are spreading by the day.
Reed rubbed his wound and talked about it, even while remaining positive that things aren't as dire as they look. Still, he agreed that this team never envisioned being on the verge of playoff elimination - and tried to figure out why.
"With the season we've been having, up and down - to be at this point, you didn't know what was going to happen [yesterday]," he said. "You didn't want it to be what it is right now. ... We reached for that glory way in the offseason, way back last year. [Losing] shows us we need to get better. Things need to get better; things can't be how they are. Things need to turn around, because to have things go the way they did last year and to have this happen this year, something's wrong. Something's wrong."
Reed would only hint at what "something" might be - preparation, communication, chemistry, letting winnable games get away. He did say there was "a lot of big hearts in this locker room." He also said, "We shouldn't be in this position."
Everything that the Ravens faithful had come to take for granted from this team has been turned upside down lately. Now, in what amounted to a playoff game, they've been beaten at what they do best, stopping the run. As the Steelers pounded their way downfield on that opening drive of the second half, the image of the Ravens that had lingered for four seasons after the Super Bowl win faded away.
It didn't even matter that they knocked Ben Roethlisberger out of the game. Suggs' hit, on the touchdown that concluded the drive, was too little and (literally) too late. Bubby Brister could have finished the game as long as he could complete a handoff.
"We've always responded. Today we did not," said defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, sounding as down as he had three weeks ago after the fourth-quarter collapse against Cincinnati.
There was no sugar-coating this one, as other recent losses had been. No talk about bumps in the road, or bouncing back, or seeing them in January. Ray Lewis, who had so much to say about how pessimistic everybody had been after the Bengals loss, made a rare postgame departure without answering questions. He and the other core players on the defense, including Reed, sat in uniform, pads and all, talking quietly among themselves long after teammates had dressed. If Reed's later reflections were any indication, not many answers emerged there, either.
The goals have been scaled down with each loss in November and December, and now the Ravens struggle to match those. "You wish for a day like this," admitted Adalius Thomas, "one game, you win and you can get to the playoffs, and we couldn't get it done.
"We didn't play Ravens football," he added.
Talked it, but didn't play it. That goes for this game, this final month, this entire disappointing season.