PITTSBURGH-- --The Ravens won the big head game yesterday.
They are lodged deep inside Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's head, and he can't get them out. They scarred him mentally four weeks ago with a team-record nine sacks, and he was still feeling the effects yesterday in the Ravens' 31-7 win.
The Ravens sacked Roethlisberger five times yesterday, and hurried him five others. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher didn't do Roethlisberger any favors by having him throw from the pocket instead of rolling him out. Poor guy. Roethlisberger was awful. He threw behind receivers and way ahead of them. He was too high and too low.
But more important, he failed to step into his throws because he was afraid of being hit. Even when there wasn't pressure, Roethlisberger appeared timid. He completed only 15 of 31 passes for 156 yards, and two of his passes were intercepted.
He was so bad, in fact, that there were chants of "Charlie, Charlie" from the home crowd for backup Charlie Batch to replace him. The fans were right: Roethlisberger needed to be replaced. He will need a full offseason to heal from the past two Ravens beatings.
Path looks clear
If the Ravens beat the Buffalo Bills at home next week, they'll get a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans eliminated the Bills from the playoff picture yesterday. That means the Bills will play hard for a half while their bags are packed and the bus is running, waiting to take them home for the offseason.
Once the Ravens achieve the bye, pencil them into the AFC championship game. This team thrives after a bye, and it's hard seeing it losing at M&T; Bank Stadium in the second round of the playoffs.
The only team that could challenge the Ravens at home is Cincinnati because the Ravens don't match up well with the Bengals. The Ravens have been impressive in two of their past three games, and both of those strong showings came on the road.
You had to be impressed yesterday. The Ravens beat a team that had an 18-5 record here the past three seasons. Pittsburgh still had playoff aspirations, and had won three straight and five of its previous six.
And the Ravens beat the Steelers down again.
Here's a key thing to watch: The Ravens are making good running backs (Larry Johnson and Willie Parker) and quarterbacks (Gentle Ben and Trent Green) look bad down the stretch. That's the sign of a good team getting better, and a serious contender.
If this was Cowher's final game at Heinz Field, it wasn't a great farewell. There were a lot of empty seats for a Ravens-Steelers game, and fans started pouring out when Ravens kicker Matt Stover converted on a 26-yard field goal with 7:27 left in the game to make the score 24-7.
It was kind of sad, but Merry Christmas, Bill.
Pass of the year
Steve McNair's 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mark Clayton at the end of the first quarter was his best pass of the year. It was a beauty. It was thrown on a line, but with enough air under it to get it over the outstretched hands of safety Troy Polamalu.
The ball was put on the fingertips of Clayton, who pulled the pass in while running in stride. For most of this season, McNair has been a dink-and-dunk guy. When asked to throw long, he has thrown some ugly passes. Not on that one.
McNair also had nice touch on a 25-yard touchdown pass to receiver Demetrius Williams early in the third quarter. Like Clayton, Williams beat Polamalu, which raises the question: Why is Polamalu covering Ravens receivers one-on-one, especially a speedster such as Williams?
McNair threw three touchdown passes, but he disappeared from the locker room before reporters could interview him. Way to go, big fella.
J. Lewis levels Porter
The best shot of the day belonged to Ravens running back Jamal Lewis. After catching a short pass over the middle early in the second quarter, Lewis stiff-armed and threw Steelers linebacker Larry Foote to the ground, then ran over outside linebacker Joey Porter.
Porter was so enraged that he got called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the next play. Sometimes when you get run over by a truck and embarrassed, it's better to shut up than to bring on more humiliation.
Speaking of loud mouths, did anyone notice that the two biggest were wearing No. 55 yesterday? Ravens coach Brian Billick needs to put a lid on Terrell Suggs before he hurts this team in a big game. The game is "too emotional" excuse is getting lame. Suggs was penalized for unnecessary roughness again yesterday.
The Ravens made a clock management mistake at the end of the first half that cost them a touchdown. The Steelers were at the Ravens' 1, but had no timeouts left on fourth down with the clock running. But with 11 seconds left, the Ravens called a timeout.
Pittsburgh was totally disorganized, and the offensive line was having trouble getting lined up. After the timeout, the Steelers scored on a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller.
Billick said he didn't know why a timeout was called, but it wasn't him. He said it was one of the players. Nobody confessed in the locker room, but let's hope the phantom doesn't make the same call again.
Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral