Steelers provide a mirror Ravens can reflect upon

December 31, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

When you get right down to it, the Ravens finally played a team that looked just like themselves yesterday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers played without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and star wide receiver Hines Ward. They played without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and kick returner Allen Rossum. They also didn't have a whole lot to play for, though the third seed in the AFC playoffs was still available when they took the field.

Perhaps, then, the Ravens' 27-21 victory should serve as something more than a small consolation prize at the end of a very disappointing season. It should also remind the disenchanted multitudes how quickly a few injuries can turn a solid NFL team into a pitiable shell of its former self.

Obviously, there were other factors at work yesterday. The Steelers deactivated some players - including Roethlisberger - who might have gutted out their bumps and bruises if Pittsburgh hadn't already been assured of the AFC North title. The difference between the third and fourth playoff seed just didn't justify taking any chances on a wet and nasty late afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.

That doesn't change the fact that, in an era of unprecedented NFL parity, a couple of key personnel changes can turn a division champion into a game-day doormat. The only difference between the Steelers and the Ravens yesterday was that the Ravens have been playing a handful of key players short in just about every game this season.

It doesn't seem that long ago that we all tuned into the regular-season premiere of Monday Night Football thinking the Ravens had as good a chance as just about any other team to end up in the Super Bowl. Seven turnovers and a gimpy veteran quarterback later, reality began to set in.

Admittedly, it took some of us longer than others to figure out what now seems so obvious. The Ravens were never healthy enough or deep enough to be a real Super Bowl contender. The 2006 version of Steve McNair disappeared during the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts in January and was replaced by the banged-up, frustrated guy who played in only six games this season.

The first half of the schedule was spent waiting for various players to get healthy, except that every week seemed to deliver another dose of bad injury news. The second half of the schedule was spent debating backup quarterbacks and trying to hide a depleted secondary from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The continuing debate, however, is whether one of the worst seasons in Ravens history was the result of failed leadership or cruel fortune. Billick or bad luck. Maybe yesterday's victory will soften some hearts toward the coach who won a Super Bowl and two division championships (2003 and 2006) during the seven seasons leading up to this year's debacle.

It's fair to criticize Brian Billick for a recent history of unimaginative offense, but it's only fair to also acknowledge that it's difficult to stage an entertaining play with so many understudies in speaking roles.

The Steelers, though they were clearly looking ahead to the postseason, proved that yesterday and provided a little perspective on this train wreck of a Ravens season. If that isn't good enough for you, perhaps you'll believe it if it comes from the lips of perennial All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden.

"Everybody in this league is so close talentwise, a few injuries can turn you in the wrong direction," said Ogden, who might or might not have played the final game of his great career yesterday. "But I think a few moves and we get healthy, and we can get right back up there."

It's hard to look up at the end of a season like this, but that has become a little easier now that the Ravens - mercifully - can leave the longest losing streak in franchise history behind as they look ahead to 2008.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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