True grit

December 30, 2003

IF MORE than the usual number of Baltimoreans arrived at work yesterday morning a bit groggy, blame not holiday revelry but the Ravens, who battled until almost midnight Sunday before eking out an overtime victory over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers on a 47-yard field goal.

The game did not count - after the Cincinnati Bengals' defeat that afternoon had clinched the Ravens' first division title. But their last regular season contest sure turned out to be an intense, intriguing slugfest, one which fully displayed the true grit of this young team and its coach.

A record crowd of 70,001 gathered here to cheer Jamal Lewis' determined race to break the National Football League's 19-year-old single season yardage record. But even as the running back's quest ran short, another riveting drama evolved: that of an entire team going all out for pride.

Sure, the Ravens are locked in a heated feud with the Steelers, with Pittsburgh having won the last six games in Baltimore before Sunday. But with the Ravens' first play-off game fast approaching Saturday, it would have been understandable - even advisable - for coach Brian Billick to rest many starters for the playoffs.

Having prepared to battle the Steelers, however, coach Billick would not relent. "You can't cheat the game and you can't cheat the fans," he declared Sunday. "You play the game straight-up, because that's the way it's supposed to be."

The potential cost of that decision - for Saturday's game against the Tennessee Titans - remains to be seen, of course. But anyone who watched Sunday's game had to have been moved by the team's old-fashioned dedication not only to giving their hard-charging running back a full shot at the record, but also to winning.

As has been the case for these Ravens, the win was physical and a bit ugly. Nevertheless, as they embark down an even tougher road for what their fans can only hope is their second Super Bowl title in four seasons, Sunday night's hard-won victory gives plenty of reason to salute every Ravens player and coach, particularly Jamal Lewis and the often unsung offensive line that cleared his path to just 39 yards short of the record.

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