A week after clinching an NFL playoff berth, the Ravens gained something more valuable yesterday: the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a sense of destiny.
On the day when the Indianapolis Colts lost as the game expired, the Ravens rode a hot quarterback and defense to a 31-7 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, elevating them into elite territory.
The Ravens' first victory at Heinz Field since 2001 moved them one game ahead of the Colts for the AFC's second seed. If the Ravens beat the Buffalo Bills in their season finale, they will receive a first-round bye and play at home in the second round of the playoffs.
"Everybody had a pretty good feeling that something was going to happen in our favor - that one of the two teams [the San Diego Chargers or Colts] would lose," tight end Todd Heap said. "We talked about it, and that added emphasis to us taking care of our end of the bargain. Now we know we control it. Now we know what's in front of us."
Winners of eight of their past nine games, the Ravens (12-3) relied on the once-injured throwing hand of Steve McNair and their strong defensive grip on the Steelers.
One week removed from leaving a game with a cut on his right hand, McNair threw for touchdown passes of 35, 1 and 25 yards. That was more than enough points for a Ravens defense that held the Steelers to 251 total yards and forced three turnovers.
The Ravens' celebration grew stronger when they learned on the sideline that the Colts had lost to the Houston Texans on a game-ending, 48-yard field goal.
"They've got to come to our crib!" linebacker Ray Lewis shouted as he walked into the locker room.
The Ravens now have a shot at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Ravens beat the Bills and the Chargers (12-3) lose to the Arizona Cardinals, the Ravens would take the top seed by virtue of their Oct. 1 victory over San Diego.
"This puts us in a position to get things that we've been coveting," coach Brian Billick said. "The way they answered the bell is something to be proud of."
It might be an all-too-familiar ending for the Steelers' Bill Cowher, who might have coached his final game in Pittsburgh.
Known for losing at home at the most important of times under Cowher, the Steelers (7-8) were officially eliminated from defending their Super Bowl championship in the playoffs yesterday.
"It's not about ending the Steelers' season," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "It's about continuing our legacy."
With the Steelers uninspired by Cowher's possible home farewell, the Ravens jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the arm of McNair, who threw multiple touchdowns in the first half for the first time since Nov. 12 at Tennessee.
His best pass as a Raven came late in the first quarter, when he threw a dart over the middle of the field that sailed over Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and into the outstretched hands of Mark Clayton in the end zone.
The 35-yard touchdown pass put the Ravens ahead 7-0 and came one play after McNair had converted a fourth-and-one on a sneak.
"[The throw] was perfect," said Clayton, who had 108 yards on seven catches. "I remember looking up and the ball was there. I was like, 'Thank you, Steve.'"
After the Ravens' defense recorded another two three-and-outs, the Ravens quickly moved the ball deep into Pittsburgh territory on fullback Ovie Mughelli's 13-yard catch and 12-yard run.
Faced with a third-and-goal at the Steelers' 1-yard line, McNair used a nifty play-action fake to Jamal Lewis, leaving two receivers open in the end zone. McNair hit tight end Daniel Wilcox for the touchdown, extending the Ravens' lead to 14-0 with 3:26 left in the second quarter.
"When I was in high school, I remember seeing him on TV and saw him doing amazing things," Mughelli said, "and he's still doing them."
McNair wasn't available for comment after the game. A team spokesman said he had to rush to the airport for a flight to Nashville, Tenn., to spend Christmas with his family.
The first misstep by the Ravens came on the series after their second touchdown, when a pass went off Clayton's hands and right to cornerback Deshea Townsend with 1:51 remaining in the first half.
McNair's first interception in six games - and 162 throws (the longest streak of his 12-year career) - gave Pittsburgh possession at the Ravens' 40, the first time the Steelers were in Ravens territory.
The Ravens held Pittsburgh short of the end zone when Bart Scott and McAlister tackled tight end Heath Miller at the 1-yard line. With the final seconds running down and the Steelers without any timeouts, the Ravens stopped the clock with 11 seconds left by calling a timeout.
On fourth-and-goal, Roethlisberger connected with Miller for a 1-yard touchdown, closing the deficit to 14-7.
Asked why the Ravens called the timeout, Billick said: "You'd have to ask the guy who called the timeout. It was one of our defensive players. Sorry, man, you can't lay that one on me."
Undeterred by the sloppy end to the first half, the Ravens came out of halftime with an eight-play, 69-yard drive. After converting a third-and-13 with an 18-yard pass to Todd Heap, McNair hit rookie Demetrius Williams in stride for a 25-yard touchdown.
It was the second three-touchdown game as a Raven for McNair, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 256 yards.
"How many times do we have to say it? He's a phenomenal athlete with a phenomenal cool," Billick said. "It's a gift to have him with us."
The Ravens were in a stingy mood defensively. After shutting out the Steelers last month, the Ravens allowed Pittsburgh into their territory only three times.
Steelers running back Willie Parker, the NFL's fifth-leading rusher, was limited to 29 yards - 4 fewer than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And Roethlisberger, who was 15-for-31 passing for 156 yards, was erratic most of the game despite having time to throw.
Some of the Ravens conjectured that sacking Roethlisberger nine times last month had a carry-over effect.
"He was probably thinking about those couple of hits from last time," said safety Ed Reed, who had a 32-yard fumble return and a 37-yard interception return in the fourth quarter. "I'm sure he had that in the back of his head that we were coming."
The Ravens' first season sweep of division rival Pittsburgh could lead to another milestone for the franchise.
Never higher than a fourth seed, the Ravens have positioned themselves for an extended home run in the playoffs. But after the way they have played on the road this season, the Ravens know they can win anywhere in the postseason.