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Ravens keep rolling, rout Steelers

PITTSBURGH (Dec. 24, 2006) -- Minutes after they ended the Pittsburgh Steelers' run as the Super Bowl champion, the Baltimore Ravens were ready to proclaim a new NFL title favorite -- themselves.

Steve McNair, masterfully running an offense that was productive and efficient, threw three touchdown passes and Baltimore took a big step toward securing a first-round AFC playoffs bye with a 31-7 victory over the Steelers.

The Ravens (12-3) matched a franchise record for victories in a season set by their Super Bowl championship team in 2000 and swept the series from the despised Steelers (7-8) for the first time since the former Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996. They also won in Heinz Field for the first time since their initial game there in 2001.

"The satisfaction is what we're trying to accomplish, it's not about ending the Steelers' season," cornerback Chris McAlister said.

The Ravens got some unexpected help from the Houston Texans, who upset the Indianapolis Colts 24-21 to move Baltimore ahead of the Colts (11-4) for the No. 2 seeding in the AFC playoffs. Baltimore, which still can surpass San Diego and be seeded No. 1, will finish at home next Sunday against Buffalo (8-7).

"We're in a prime position to get home-field advantage," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "With the way we're playing defense and the way our offense is clicking, we're going to be a hard team to beat in the playoffs."

If this was Bill Cowher's last home game as Steelers coach, and there is a possibility it was, his players didn't throw much of a going-away party.

With Ben Roethlisberger (156 yards passing, two interceptions) and Willie Parker (29 yards on 13 carries) again having rough afternoons against one of the NFL's top defenses, the Steelers (7-8) became the first defending Super Bowl champions since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 to miss the playoffs.

"We just didn't play the way we played last year," wide receiver Hines Ward said, pointing to a season-long problem with turnovers -- 35, including three more in Week 16. "You never give yourself a chance to win when you turn it over."

The Steelers tried to rally by winning five of six following a 2-6 start, but now can finish no better than 8-8 -- the same record they had in 1980, the year after they won the fourth and last of the Super Bowls under coach Chuck Noll.

"Nobody expected us to be in this position," linebacker James Farrior said. "Everybody is going to have to pick themselves up after this."

Parker, a Pro Bowl running back, had averaged 144 yards rushing in the previous four home games only to be held below 30 yards for the second time in a month by Baltimore. He had 22 yards on 10 carries in the Ravens' 27-0 rout on Nov. 26. The Steelers were out-gained 634-423 and outscored 58-7 in the two losses to the Ravens.

The Ravens defense wasn't quite as good as the first matchup, when it sacked Roethlisberger nine times and forced three turnovers, but it didn't have to be the way McNair (21 of 31, 256 yards, two interceptions) took advantage of repeatedly good field position.

"To me, he's the secret weapon this year," Steelers lineman Brett Keisel said of McNair, acquired from Tennessee in a trade earlier this year. "He's the reason they are where they are. He came into a new system and now he's taking them to the playoffs."

Jamal Lewis helped out with 77 yards, giving him 1,063 yards for the season, and a 1-yard touchdown run.

After Baltimore got the ball at the Steelers 43 late in the first quarter following a short punt by Chris Gardocki, McNair found Mark Clayton behind Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu on a 35-yard scoring play. The touchdown came one play after McNair kept the drive going by barely gaining enough ground on a fourth-and-1 sneak.

Another short punt by Gardocki on Pittsburgh's next possession led to McNair's 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Daniel Wilcox on fourth-and-goal.

The Steelers had gained only 34 yards in the first half until a McNair-thrown interception on a tipped pass led to Roethlisberger's 1-yard TD pass to Heath Miller seven seconds before halftime.

The Ravens regained control on their opening drive of the second half, with McNair finding Demetrius Williams open behind Polamalu down the Baltimore sideline for a 25-yard touchdown. That made it 21-7, and the Steelers were so desperate to score after that they went for it on a fourth-and-2 at their 37 midway through the quarter. They didn't get the first down -- a perfect summation of their failed season.

Polamalu, an All-Pro safety last season, returned after missing the Steelers' previous three games with a knee injury.

Notes:

McNair is 10-4 against Pittsburgh. ... Baltimore has won eight of nine. ... The Steelers were 2 of 14 on third downs, with both conversions coming on penalties, and 3 of 26 against Baltimore this season. ... Six of the last eight Super Bowl winners held a first-round bye. ... McNair had thrown 163 passes without an interception. ... The Ravens have allowed 57 points in their last six games. ... Baltimore finished 5-1 in the division. The Steelers are 2-3.

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