PITTSBURGH-- --The closer the Ravens get to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the more thoroughly they're beating teams away from home. Which raises the legitimate question: What difference, really, does home field make?
"We don't care where we play," Bart Scott said yesterday, as seriously as he has ever sounded (or, at least, as serious as he can be). "As long as I've got my teammates with me and my coaching staff, I could care less. We can play in the Orange Bowl, USC, at a high school, in Texas ... "
Not that they don't crave the prospect of having the proverbial road to the Super Bowl go through M&T; Bank Stadium. They made that clear as they bounced into their locker room at Heinz Field after pulling the Steelers' pants down, 31-7, and moving to 12-3. "They got to come to our crib!" Ray Lewis was yelling, loudly enough to disrupt Christmas Eve services all over western Pennsylvania.
But with the spankings they administered in their past two trips away from home, yesterday and in Kansas City, the Ravens sent a message to the NFL that they're fully capable of beating you in their place, then beating you in your place. Then beating you in a vacant lot, in a parking garage, in a manger surrounded by wise men - wherever they need to go to do the job.
That's how they've looked at the last two-thirds of this season, during which they've won eight of nine, with the one loss in Cincinnati on short rest. The run began on the road in New Orleans, and because they kept it up as well on the road as at home, the next time they might have to board a plane is in the last week of January, for Miami.
"It's just that added thing that an opposing team has to worry about. Nothing's a lock," Derrick Mason said. "When you play the Ravens and they're coming into your place, it's not a lock, they're going to play tough."
Pretty impressive, considering they didn't win a road game all last season, and lost to some real lightweights (if you don't remember falling to the Detroit Lions, consider yourself lucky).
It has been quite the opposite this season. Of the four teams they conquered in their buildings in the past nine games, the New Orleans Saints won their division and the other three, the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs and Steelers, were all alive for the playoffs at the start of the day. Yet the Ravens drove a stake through the Steelers' heart, and the other victories could cost those teams berths.
"We've been going into playoff-atmosphere places," Samari Rolle said, "and we've stuck together."
This one might have been the most impressive. Everybody, including both teams, figured that a repeat of the 27-0 Ravens domination last month was beyond unlikely. Everybody was wrong. Some thought Steve McNair's throwing hand would be an issue. They were stunningly wrong on that, too. He might not have two better throws this season, much less two in one game, than the touchdowns to Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams.
Meanwhile, the defense, as it usually is, was mad about not getting a shutout. It still took three pretty specific gaffes on that one Steelers possession late in the first half to make that touchdown possible - a pass going through Clayton's hands for an interception, Terrell Suggs' shoving match and unnecessary-roughness penalty to give the Steelers' first-and-goal at the 7 and the inexplicable timeout in the waning seconds as the Steelers stumbled about to line up on fourth down at the 1.
If any of those three things didn't happen, the final score would have been worse. One of them, in fact, shed light on an aspect the Ravens controlled surprisingly well: their tempers.
"We have to keep our composure. They're going to take cheap shots," said Scott, who had a face-to-face with Suggs after that flag and tapped the side of his own helmet, the universal sign for "Be smart."
Speaking of which, the Ravens once again raised the question of whether Bill Cowher has lost his mind on the topic of Ben Roethlisberger. Late in the third quarter, with the home team down 21-7 and after the Steelers had responded to Daniel Wilcox's fumble with a rare four-and-out series, fans started chanting "Char-lie, Char-lie," for backup Charlie Batch.
It might have been out of sympathy for the starter, of whom one now wonders whether, from now on, he'll get a sudden involuntary eye twitch or a rash before he plays the Ravens. What the Ravens did to him in the two games combined - 14 sacks, for starters - was not only vicious, but also might be illegal in some states.
To do that to the reigning Super Bowl champs, and to all the teams they've throttled on the road lately, is to proclaim that as unsexy and untelegenic as they might be, they're going to be tough to evict from any party.
No matter where it's held.