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Behind Enemy Lines: It's losing to Baltimore that stings

For the fourth time in these six most recent ultra-violent collisions, the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens delivered another tight-as-the-wallpaper three-point game Sunday, this one falling to the purple and black, the primary colors of a deep bruise.

That's precisely what it felt like in the Steelers' locker room, too. More important, as deep bruises go, this one's going to be there for a while, at least until everyone in the AFC North proves they can beat somebody else in the AFC North.

A quarter of the way through this NFL season, we know the Browns can beat the Bengals (really?), the Bengals can beat the Ravens, the Ravens can beat the Steelers, and the Steelers can beat …

Yeah, see that's a problem.

Is it worth pointing out at this juncture that Mike Tomlin's team has lost five of its past seven games within the division?

"No, every year is different," said a bitterly disappointed Hines Ward after the Ravens flipped a four-point Pittsburgh lead for a 17-14 victory in the game's final minute. "But this is still going to hurt, because it's Baltimore."

Hines had his own five-of-the-last-seven factoid at the ready.

"Before today, we'd won five of the last seven in this series," Ward said, "and the two times we didn't, we didn't have our starting quarterback."

So yes, it's true, Baltimore's past three wins against the Steelers have come against backup quarterbacks, but as much as you might be relieved, if not delighted, that the Steelers came through No. 7's enforced absence with a 3-1 record, a 3-1 record compiled any other way would taste a lot sweeter.

This is like finding out you've won that new Lamborghini, but that this one has a bold new design inspired by the El Camino. And, of course, there are the taxes.

"It's important for a lot of reasons, but it's mostly special because of who we're playing," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "That football team is a tremendous football team and this is a tough place to play. That's our archrival and we found a way to beat them at their place."

That they didn't find a way until 32 seconds remained, until former Bengals agitator T.J. Houshmandzadeh broke clear of Steelers corner Bryant McFadden for an 18-yard touchdown toward the river, neither of those things dampened Baltimore's afternoon in the least.

The Ravens are in first place, and if they are still there the morning of Jan. 2, the Steelers might spend that day staring at the same bruise they earned in this pratfall Oct. 3. Had they managed even one first down after Rashard Mendenhall's touchdown gave them a 14-10 lead with 7:14 to play, they'd be 4-0 for the first time in 31 years.

"We go 90-some yards to score against a great defense in the fourth quarter, and it shows a lot of character," Ward said, "and then we can't convert the next time we get the ball. I mean I like the character of this offense and now we're getting our franchise quarterback back, but it still hurts."

All together now …

"Because it's Baltimore."

It's not as though the Ravens were exactly at full strength. They were without All-Galaxy safety Ed Reed, without starting corner Domonique Foxworth, and had Ray Rice operating at diminished capacity. But you don't need to be terribly accomplished when the opponent is brain-cramping with startling regularity. In the final minutes, it really was like the Steelers were almost rhythmically non-thoughtful, to butcher a phrase.

Dick LeBeau's defense had just turned the Ravens away at the 2 to prop that 14-10 lead up when Chris Kemoeatu committed the first of three Steelers penalties in the span of 87 seconds. Kemoeatu's false start at the Steelers' 3 was followed a play later by Matt Spaeth's false start at the 6. On Daniel Sepulveda's fifth consecutive excellent punt, a 47-yarder out of the hole from the 3, Keyaron Fox was called for holding, giving Baltimore 10 critical forward yards from where Tom Zbikowski made a fair catch on the 50.

The larger offensive sin was probably the inability to convert two second-half turnovers into anything but a pair of missed Jeff Reed field goals, the second coming after an interception by Ike Taylor. You hate to waste a pick by Ike, who rarely meets a football he doesn't drop. The Ike pick might not happen again for a while.

"We let one slip through our hands," Ward said in exasperation.

When you lose a division game at home after leading in the fourth quarter because the offense drops the ball on a day that Ike doesn't, yeah, you got the bruise.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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