Steelers' resolve wilts Baltimore

Posted: Monday, January 21, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- The Steel Curtain would have loved this.

The Pittsburgh Steelers held the defending champion Baltimore Ravens to three first downs in three quarters, harassed Elvis Grbac into numerous mistakes and advanced to the AFC championship game with a 27-10 rout Sunday.

It was the kind of dominating defense that allowed the Steelers to win four Super Bowls during the 1970s -- and, if they can beat New England on Sunday at Heinz Field, will get them back to the NFL title game again.

''When you come here, you hear about Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, the Hall of Famers, the tradition of the defense,'' Steelers linebacker Mike Jones said. ''It makes you understand what you have to do to live up to that.''

The confident -- perhaps, overly so -- Ravens did plenty of talking beforehand, bragging about their ability to win playoff games on the road, only to see their chances of repeating effectively ended before they got their initial first down.

''That was our most dominating performance, by far,'' linebacker Joey Porter said. ''They kept talking about how they had their swagger back. Well, I didn't see any swagger. All that talking they did, and now what do they look like?''

Ex-champions, that's what.

The Steelers learned just before kickoff that star Jerome Bettis, out for seven weeks with a groin injury, wouldn't play because of a bad reaction to a pregame painkilling shot. But they didn't miss him, just as they didn't in a 26-21 win at Baltimore last month, as backup Amos Zereoue ran for 63 yards and scored on a pair of 1-yard runs.

''He was crying, he wanted to take part in this so bad,'' receiver Hines Ward said of Bettis. ''We just said, 'OK, we've been winning without him and we'll have to do it again.'''

Bettis said he shouldn't have gotten the shot, saying he really didn't need it, but wanted it only as a precaution. Coach Bill Cowher said, ''They said he'd be ready in five hours -- but the network wouldn't let us wait five hours.''

Steelers safety Lee Flowers said, ''I think it fired us up even more when we found out. It made the defense put on even more of a performance.''

Ravens owner Art Modell couldn't make it to Pittsburgh because weather prevented his plane from leaving Baltimore. For a while, it didn't look like his team made it, either, as the Ravens fell behind 20-0.

Grbac (18-of-37, 153 yards), unlike Trent Dilfer a season ago when the Ravens swept to a Super Bowl championship as a wild card, simply could not get the Ravens offense going. He threw three interceptions, two by Brent Alexander -- one in the end zone that kept the Ravens from getting back into the game with Pittsburgh up 10-0, the second midway through the fourth quarter to end any chance of a comeback.

''Grbac doesn't like to get hit, so when we got close to him, we just tried to brush him if nothing else, just to let him know we were close by,'' Porter said. ''When a quarterback isn't confident, that makes for a tough day. We knew he wasn't going to beat us.''

Kordell Stewart also threw an early interception, but it didn't matter as the quarterback who was nearly jeered out of Pittsburgh during 2 1/2 slumping seasons confidently led an offense that was efficient throughout.

Stewart wasn't quite as good as he was in throwing for 333 yards last month in Baltimore, going 12-of-22 for 154 yards. But he avoided the costly mistakes he made in his last playoff game, when he was intercepted three times by Denver four years ago in the AFC title game.

Stewart's passing set up both of Zereoue's scoring runs, and he connected with Plaxico Burress on a 32-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter -- Burress' third TD catch in three games against Baltimore.

The Steelers dominated all three games statistically, outgaining the Ravens 824-390 during the regular season, but lost 13-10 on Nov. 4 in Pittsburgh when Kris Brown missed four field goals. This time, the Steelers made certain Brown wouldn't be a factor, even though he missed a 35-yarder in the second quarter.

''They had a better football team than we did this year,'' Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. ''They wanted it worse than we did.''

The usually cocky Shannon Sharpe was humbled, too.

''As painful as it is to say this, they have a better football team,'' the tight end said. ''We played 60 minutes and had 150 total yards, and I don't think I need to say more.''

Even the longest punt return touchdown in NFL playoff history -- Jermaine Lewis' 88-yarder in the third quarter -- couldn't provide a lift to a somnolent Baltimore offense, which was outgained 297-150. The Steelers also had a 2-to-1 edge in possession time.

The Ravens went three-and-out on their first three series and quickly found themselves down 10-0 on Brown's 21-yard field goal and Zereoue's first touchdown run -- and then it got worse.

Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, beaten repeatedly by Burress last month in Baltimore, intercepted Stewart's underthrown pass and returned it 18 yards to the 7. But after a false start penalty, Grbac's pass intended for Sharpe was intercepted by Alexander, and the threat was over.

''You ride it as long as you can ride it, but you know it comes to an end sometime,'' Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said.

The Ravens also went nowhere on their next drive, and Troy Edwards' 27-yard punt return gave Pittsburgh excellent field position at the Baltimore 43. After Stewart hit Burress for 13 yards and Hines Ward for 9, Zereoue capped a 1-yard scoring dive by adeptly landing on his feet and pointing to the fans.

It wasn't exactly a Lambeau leap -- wrong conference, wrong venue -- but it put Pittsburgh ahead at 17-0 with 5:43 left before halftime. It quickly became 20-0 following Terry Allen's fumble when Brown kicked a 46-yard field goal. Until then, Brown was 2-of-7 at home against the Ravens.

Notes: Allen, coming off consecutive 100-yard games, had 11 yards on five carries -- giving him 14 yards in the last two games against Pittsburgh. ... Steelers LB Earl Holmes reinjured a knee during the second quarter and will be examined Monday. ... The Steelers are 1-2 in AFC championship games under Cowher, winning in the 1995 season and losing in 1994 and 1997. ... Sunday was the 22nd anniversary of the Steelers' last Super Bowl championship. ... Ravens coach Brian Billick lost for the first time in four games in Pittsburgh. ... The loss ended Sharpe's personal 12-game winning streak in the playoffs. ... Anthony Carter's 84-yard punt return for Minnesota in 1987 had been the longest in NFL playoff history.



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