In the 12th week of the season, against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Ravens finally revealed their championship mettle.
Unleashing a vicious pass rush and violent rushing attack, the Ravens imposed their will on the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday, unceremoniously battering their division rivals in a 27-0 victory before a team-record crowd of 70,946 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens' largest margin of victory in this bitter feud essentially knocked last season's NFL champion out of the playoffs and offered a promising glimpse of their own postseason future.
The Ravens (9-2) can clinch their first AFC North title since 2003 if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night, a scenario few players wanted to address.
Inside the Ravens' locker room, a division title is the next step but far from the ultimate goal.
"Our motivation is one thing: winning a championship," receiver Derrick Mason said. "If we set everything on winning the division, we set ourselves up for failure. What we have in mind is bigger than winning a division."
The mind-set of the Ravens' players yesterday was to physically manhandle a Steelers team that knew another loss would all but end their chances of defending their championship.
The defense set the tone with waves of unforgiving blitzes on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They hit him from the blind side. They hit him from the front side. In fact, they hit him on 41 percent of his passes, tying a team record with nine sacks and knocking him down eight other times.
The Ravens' offense provided the other punch to the gut. Running back Jamal Lewis continued his resurgent stretch, driving his legs and hitting Pittsburgh defenders backward. He gained 61 of his 66 yards in a first half owned by the Ravens.
"People don't like watching it on tape," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "We look like world beaters."
By halftime, the Ravens had run out to a 17-0 lead, scoring two touchdowns (a 20-yard pass to Todd Heap and a 1-yard run by Lewis) and not permitting the Steelers (4-7) past midfield.
By the end of the game, the Ravens had delivered their statement.
"Come late November and December, if your offense doesn't have a nasty attitude, you won't go far in this game," Mason said. "You've got to want to have the attitude: 'If you're going to take this game from us, you have to physically beat us up.' "
The Ravens remain one game behind the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC's top seed in a season that is quickly shaping up to be special.
The Ravens' five-game winning streak is their longest since their 2000 Super Bowl season. The 21 rushing yards allowed were the fewest since the 2000 season. And after blanking Tampa Bay in the season opener and the Steelers yesterday, it marks the first time that the Ravens have registered multiple shutouts in a season since - yet again - the Super Bowl season.
This season's Ravens respect that historic defense but want to carve their own identity.
"This defense right here is totally different," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who returned after missing two games with a bruised back. "We have so much athleticism that it's almost scary."
The game plan was to not let Roethlisberger get comfortable in the pocket. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan estimated that the Ravens blitzed just half the time, but it always seemed that the Ravens had at least one defender coming unblocked.
The pressure came from different angles and different people. Seven players finished with at least half a sack, as the Ravens recorded 73 yards in sacks compared to Pittsburgh's 172 yards of total offense.
"We do what we always do. We just did a little bit more of it," defensive end Terrell Suggs said.
The most brutal hit was delivered in the second quarter by linebacker Bart Scott, who came untouched from the left side to nail Roethlisberger in the chest and drive him into the turf. Roethlisberger, who was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in the offseason, laid on his back for several minutes before walking off the field on his own.
"That's probably the hardest I've ever been hit in my life," said Roethlisberger, who was 21-for-41 for 214 yards and two interceptions. "I just kind of remember my head hitting the ground. I couldn't really breathe very well."
Suggs remembers he stopped covering his man when Scott delivered the blow.
"I was 30 yards downfield and I heard it," he said.
The Ravens smothered the Steelers, holding them to 37 yards and three first downs on the first seven possessions.
When Pittsburgh finally crossed into Ravens' territory on its eighth series, nickel back Corey Ivy came from the blind side and swatted Roethlisberger's throwing arm to force a fumble. Linebacker Adalius Thomas picked up the loose ball and ran 57 yards for the touchdown despite struggling with an ankle injury.
Thomas' score was the defense's fifth touchdown this season and extended the Ravens' advantage to 24-0 in the third quarter.
"We always say when we get a turnover, that's the beginning of the play," Thomas said. "We don't just look to get a turnover but a score."
The Steelers only reached the red zone once and could only come as close as the Ravens' 10-yard line. That drive appropriately ended with Suggs sacking Roethlisberger.
"We just had to keep our foot on their throat as long as we could," Suggs said. "You've got a rivalry game and they don't score. You're not only sending a message for the next time you play them; you're sending a message to the next team you play."
That next team is the Bengals, who are coming off a shutout of their own (a 30-0 win in Cleveland).
Holding a three-game lead over Cincinnati with five weeks remaining, the Ravens can clinch the AFC North title with a win Thursday and become the first team to secure a playoff spot. More than any other game this season, this one will test the Ravens' focus and endurance.
"I think the plane for Cincinnati leaves in five hours," said coach Brian Billick, joking about the quick turnaround. "It's going to be quite a challenge for us, but these guys are up to it."
For the fourth time in their five-game winning streak, the Ravens dominated the time of possession.
Opponent, Time of poss.
Saints - Ravens, 36:46 to 23:14
Bengals - Ravens, 37:24 to 22:36
Titans - Titans, 30:44 to 29:16
Falcons - Ravens, 36:43 to 23:17
Steelers - Ravens, 34:46 to 25:14
- Ravens, 176:23 to 123:37