His offense awakened with its most productive day of the season, his team awakened with its most smashing performance ever at home, and Ravens coach Brian Billick can hardly wait to hit the road again.
Never mind that the Ravens and their former incarnation, the Cleveland Browns, have rarely been adept at solving the Pittsburgh Steelers in their back yard. Never mind that Art Modell's franchise has failed to win at Three Rivers Stadium in 10 consecutive attempts dating to 1989, one year before a Cleveland tight end named Ozzie Newsome retired.
With Sunday's 41-14 rout of Tennessee, the 5-7 Ravens have won two of their last three games and have a chance to move into third place in the AFC Central by beating the Steelers. And even though they may have to play without running back Errict Rhett and wide receiver Patrick Johnson, Billick can think of no place better than Three Rivers for the Ravens' mini-roll to continue.
"Fate has taken care of us. To have to go into Pittsburgh after this win is perfect. I couldn't have drawn it up better,"
Billick said. "This is going to be an excellent test. It's a place where we have not had a lot of success, evidently.
"That's exactly the game I want to play to truly measure where we're at. Have we really improved? Are we heading in the right direction? Can we sustain that? Either now or in the future, this team is going to have to do that."
The Ravens are facing a huge opportunity against an old nemesis that is reeling. Since beating the Ravens in Baltimore on Sept. 19, the Steelers have gone 3-7 and have dropped four straight games. The Steelers also are 1-4 this year at Three Rivers. If they drop this week's game, it would mark their first losing season at home since 1970, when the facility opened.
Pittsburgh also is a team in decline with a shaky future at the quarterback position. Kordell Stewart was benched two weeks ago in favor of veteran Mike Tomczak, who will start against the Ravens. Stewart has been switched to receiver, and Pittsburgh may look for a new veteran passer in the off-season.
The Steelers have had Raven-like problems on offense for most of the year. They are ranked 24th in the NFL on offense, including No. 12 in rushing, which has long been their forte. What's more, Pittsburgh's defense has slumped to No. 21 in the league against the run, which is unheard of during the Bill Cowher era that began in 1991.
"Whatever direction [the Steelers] are going is incidental," said Billick. "This is the perfect game for us, whether the Steelers are 10-2 or 2-10. It's not the fact that they're a good team or a bad team. It's the fact that they're the Steelers, it's on the road and at a tough place. I'm looking at it as a positive learning environment for us."
A victory over Pittsburgh, the last opponent in a six-game stretch against divisional rivals, would give the Ravens a 4-2 mark over that span. It also would give them a chance to pull even at 7-7 at home the following week against New Orleans.
Billick said there is "a very good chance" that Priest Holmes will replace Rhett in the backfield this week, and that Johnson will give way to Jermaine Lewis as a starting receiver.
Rhett left the Titans game with bruised ribs early in the second quarter and did not return. Johnson left after straining his right calf during his 76-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for the Ravens. Each will probably be listed as questionable tomorrow for the Steelers game.
The replacements did quite well. Holmes ran nine times for 100 yards, and his 72-yard run set up a field goal. Lewis broke his season-long scoreless drought by catching two touchdown passes from Tony Banks, who turned in the best performance by a Ravens quarterback this year by far.
Billick was especially pleased with the effective adjustments made by his defense, which shut out the Titans in the second half.
The defense topped it off by forcing two turnovers. A third-quarter interception by rookie cornerback Chris McAlister in the end zone stopped a promising Tennessee drive and preserved a 24-14 lead. Safety Rod Woodson then capped the scoring by returning a late interception 47 yards for a touchdown.
"That first interception was probably as big as Rod's, with them moving the ball as well as they were," Billick said. "That first one was a big, big play in terms of cutting them off."
Billick said he would be watching rookies like McAlister closely in the coming weeks, since first-year players tend to wear down in the late stages of the longest season of their lives. Then again, Billick promised to ride the whole team hard in practice.
"The players are going to have to understand that what this win allows is for me to chew on their rear ends for a solid week," he said. "Anytime I see the first sign that you're letting up a little bit [in practice], this win allows me to raise my voice, raise the temperature around them, hold them to a higher standard.
"I think they're buying into the idea that there is a lot for us to gain over the next few weeks. If next year, we're indeed good enough to be a playoff team and the next year after that, we become one of the elite, I promise you a lot of those lessons will have been learned in these next four weeks."
NOTES: Billick excused players from normal Monday meetings yesterday. The Ravens are second in the NFL and tops in the AFC against the run. They are allowing 80.8 yards a game and 3.2 yards per carry. They have given up six rushing touchdowns and two over the last six games.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Site: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Series: Steelers lead 6-1
Last meeting: Steelers won, 23-20, on Sept. 19 at PSINet Stadium
Line: Steelers by 1 1/2