- Ashley Fox
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PITTSBURGH -- Ray Rice walked toward the Baltimore Ravens' locker room, a third consecutive win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the books, with a yellow Terrible Towel draped over his head singing "Renegade," the Steelers' adopted anthem by Styx.
Renegade? Perfect. What the Ravens did to the Steelers on Sunday, winning another slugfest 13-10 in a game that was dominated by defense, was part vengeance, part message: We're not going anywhere. You're getting older. Now is our time.
The great Super Bowl scoreboard is the ultimate indicator, however, and it says that since Ben Roethlisberger entered the NFL in 2004, the Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl three times and won it twice. The Ravens have reached the AFC Championship Game twice, in the 2008 and 2011 seasons, and lost twice, including in January 2009 at Pittsburgh.
The Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry won't truly tilt until this generation of Ravens gets at least one tally on the Super Bowl scoreboard. The Ravens know that. But they also know that there has been a shift, however subtle, in the rivalry. Baltimore knows it can beat Pittsburgh, at home or on the road, and that hasn't always been the case.
The Ravens have now won the past three games in the series. They have won three of the past four at Heinz Field, an incredibly loud, tough, hostile environment. They have won four of the past five regular-season meetings, and the four regular-season losses since Coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco arrived in 2008 have been by four, three, three and three points. To hear one Ravens official tell it, Baltimore should have won the past eight games against the Steelers.
No one from Baltimore will say that the Ravens own the Steelers, but the pendulum seems to be swinging. The plan is in place. The Ravens know Pittsburgh is aging. They want to see whether the Steelers under Mike Tomlin can draft well enough to restock the defense and improve the offensive line. The Ravens aren't so sure that the Steelers can, and they want to seize control, put Pittsburgh in their rearview mirror and dominate a division that the Steelers have owned for so long.
That is the plan at least. Baltimore (8-2) is the reigning AFC North champion and has a two-game lead over Pittsburgh, with another game against the Steelers in two weeks. The math is getting tricky for Pittsburgh now. If Baltimore wins at San Diego next week and then takes care of business at home against the Steelers, the Ravens won't have to worry about winning the division. They essentially will have won it. They will be able to focus on catching the Houston Texans and trying to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and the Steelers will have to worry about getting a wild-card berth and having to go on the road in the opening round of the playoffs.
So, sure, Baltimore's win over Pittsburgh wasn't particularly pretty, but it was vitally important, and style points don't matter. On a night when Flacco wasn't sharp and the offense gained just 200 net yards and was 3-of-14 on third down, special teams helped with a punt return for a touchdown. The defense forced two Pittsburgh turnovers that led to Baltimore field goals.
Flacco was 20-of-32 for 164 yards and zero touchdowns, but he didn't turn the ball over. He didn't fumble in the pocket or throw a careless interception. He played just well enough.
Baltimore improved to 5-0 against Pittsburgh in games when Roethlisberger doesn't play. Byron Leftwich scored on a meandering 31-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter that seemed to catch everyone off guard, but otherwise he was 18-of-39 for 201 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
"It's never pretty in this game," Harbaugh said.
No, it's not.
After the game, Rice said the Ravens were "a pissed off 8-2 because we've got to get better, and the only way to get better is to chase perfection."
That seemed to be the rallying cry.
"We know we can play better," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We've yet to play our best football, but coming down the stretch in November and December, there are very few teams that are better than us."
We will see. The Ravens have a rough schedule ahead: at San Diego, home against Pittsburgh, at Washington, home against Denver and the New York Giants, and at Cincinnati. They have had two blowout wins this season, most recently beating Oakland 55-20, and they've also won four games by a combined nine points. But their two losses came on the road at Philadelphia and at Houston in a game that wasn't even close.
Can the Ravens continue to separate from Pittsburgh, and can they ultimately tilt the rivalry in their direction? We will soon find out.
"To be honest, I don't know if there's every going to be a tilt until we actually win a few Super Bowls, and that's just something they can always hang over our head," Rice said. "That's just what it is now. That's something that's always sticking in the back of my head since I've been a pro. We know the road had to go through Pittsburgh, and they had our number for the last few years. Now it feels good we're capable of beating this team at their place. Right now, we've won the last three against them, last year and this year, so it feels pretty good."
Pretty good, but not great.
No, great will come when they narrow the gap on the ultimate scoreboard. The Ravens think they have the team to do it -- a solid quarterback, speedy players at the skill positions and a defense that is coming together -- and that now is their time. Now it is time to prove it.