In throwing for a career-high 274 yards against the Steelers, Ryan Mallett avoided the interceptions that had plagued the Ravens much of the season.

For the first time in recent weeks, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was happy to name his starting quarterback.

"Ryan Mallett," Harbaugh said, laughing. "I thought, 'Can I get away with one more week not making [a starting quarterback announcement]?' Probably not."

That's where we're at in this season. We're ending any talk about a quarterback controversy, but not at the starting spot. It's the backup position. The Ravens have fallen on hard times, but Mallett gave them an emotional lift in the team's 20-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday.

So after using Matt Schaub for two games and Jimmy Clausen for two games, it appears the Ravens have settled on Mallett as the starter, at least for the season finale next week in Cincinnati.

Mallett completed 28 of 41 passes for 274 yards, a career high, and a touchdown, finishing with a quarterback rating of 95. His performance will create a buzz in Baltimore because the Ravens had dropped the previous three games.

"To operate the way he did, change plays at the line the way he did, I think it says a lot about him, but it says a lot about our coaches as well," Harbaugh said. "Just a great effort."

It's better than most expected because the Ravens didn't sign Mallett until Dec. 15. He completed about five passes Sunday that were big-league throws, including the high and tight 8-yard touchdown pass to Chris Matthews in the back of the end zone and the 39-yard pass he dropped in perfectly to Chris Givens in the fourth quarter.

But even more than that, Mallett appeared to have control of the offense. He went through his progressions and he checked in and out of plays. He was patient on crossing routes and throwing to his check-down receiver.

He even ran the play clock down under 10 seconds when the Ravens were trying to run time off in the fourth quarter. I wondered if Joe Flacco was watching.

"If you look at him, you were in the huddle, you'd think he'd been here all year, the way he carried himself," Ravens running back Buck Allen said. "He's such a pro, and that's why he got the job and did what he did today. I just want to congratulate him."

Maybe this game was the turning point in Mallett's five-year career. He had been in and out of the starting lineup for Houston the past two years, but was released by the Texans two days after he missed a team flight on Oct. 25.

"To get a win in this game, it's awesome," Mallett said. "To get a win, period, right now, how everything's been going, is even better. Now, it's building on that."

Maybe he has grown up. Maybe he appreciates being back in the NFL.

"I learned a lot about myself," said Mallett about his time out of football. "It's through God's grace that I'm here and able to be in this position with this organization. I felt like I was placed here by something greater [than] football."

It was a somewhat of a gamble by Harbaugh to start Mallett, and something I certainly disagreed with. Clausen had played reasonably well in the previous two games, and made a lot of plays scrambling out of the pocket, something that Mallett didn't do during his time in Houston.

But Harbaugh said he spoke with Clausen about the change. Clausen was inactive Sunday and Schaub dressed as the backup.

"I was," Harbaugh said when asked if he was concerned about Clausen's psyche in announcing the change. "I brought him in and had a conversation with him. It took me about five seconds to be dispelled of that. He was great. Yes, he wants to start, and he said, 'Yes, I want to start, but I understand what you're doing. I see the situation that the team is in. Let's do it, and I'll support it.' He was really good, and Matt was the same way. Matt wanted to play, too. And he was able to play, and he was the exact same way."

Mallett did some other things that none of the other three quarterbacks have done this season. He hit players in stride and didn't get his receivers into serious collisions by leading them too much or overthrowing them.

But before people start demanding that he replace Flacco or saying that he is much better than Clausen, let's look into Mallett's performance a little deeper. Clausen started against the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks. Before Sunday, the Chiefs were ranked No. 8 in overall defense and No. 17 against the pass. Seattle was ranked No. 2 overall, No. 4 in pass defense.

Pittsburgh came into the game ranked No. 24 in overall defense, No. 31 out of 32 teams against the pass. The Steelers cornerbacks couldn't even start for the Ravens.

Pittsburgh came into this game not ready to play. The Steelers sacked Mallett just one time, and hit him just four other times. The Ravens also gave Mallett a running game, something they haven't been consistent in doing all season.

But at least for now the Ravens have some hope because they won a game. It's not just any game — they beat the Steelers. And the Ravens didn't have any turnovers, including those interceptions returned for touchdowns that have hurt them in recent games.

"First of all, we thought he could win the game for us," Harbaugh said of his decision to start Mallett. "I thought Jimmy could win the game for us, and we thought that Matt could win the game for us. All three of those guys, we felt like they could do what we needed to do in our game plan to win the game. But, let's take a look at Ryan.

"Jimmy did a good job. Jimmy showed for two games that he can play. He had two of the best games of his career. For Ryan to have two opportunities here [in Week 16 and 17], we thought we could get him ready, which we decided that we thought we could, to see what he could do and take a look. We have two opportunities to do it. Why not do it, as long as we felt like he could win the game?"

And he did.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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