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With division wrapped up, Steelers taking aim at AFC's top seed

BALTIMORE -- In the visitor's locker room at M&T Bank Stadium, Hines Ward and a few other Pittsburgh Steelers players wore gray caps declaring that they were 2008 AFC North champions.

Your first instinct was to wonder why they would acknowledge that as some sort of big accomplishment. After all, Ward and many of his teammates already have Super Bowl rings from the 2005 season. They know a division title, which they have won five times in the last eight years, is little more than a first step toward a much larger prize.

But it did come here, in a place the Steelers hadn't won in five previous tries, against a fierce rival that also had designs on winning the division. It came in a hard-hitting, hard-fought game that featured the NFL's top two defenses and was decided by a 92-yard scoring drive capped by a controversial touchdown with 50 seconds left.

So it merited, the Steelers believed, at least 24 hours of savoring.

"I'm going to wear it tonight," Ward said of the hat after Sunday's 13-9 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. "Tonight, we are champions here, but there's a bigger picture, so I will dispose of the hat come (Monday) because I want a Super Bowl. If your goal isn't to win the Super Bowl, then you shouldn't be in this locker room."

Hats aside, the Steelers have done a superb job of keeping their focus in the right place. They never allowed themselves to get caught up in all of the discussion about which team was the best in the AFC, especially when most gave the Tennessee Titans that distinction after their 10-0 start.

Nope, the Steelers just kept taking care of business, just kept winning week after week until they found themselves in the thick of the who's-best-in-the-AFC conversation.

Then, on Sunday, they watched the Titans fall to 12-2 after losing to the Houston Texans. And after sweeping their season series against the Ravens later in the day, the Steelers found themselves with an 11-3 record and a chance to clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by beating Tennessee next weekend in Nashville and winning their season finale against the Cleveland Browns at home.

"We've been kind of under the radar the whole season, which we appreciated," strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "And we're going to be going into a new arena because I'm sure a lot of people are going to be jumping on our bandwagon here soon. But what's good about that is we focus on ourselves as a team. The outside factors and what you (media types) say don't really mean much to us."

Said linebacker Larry Foote: "Each week, if you lose, you're off the power rankings, and if you win, you're back up there. We're in the playoffs, winning our division, and we've got a (first-round) bye. Now we've just got to get control completely of homefield advantage and come out swinging."

The Steelers are pretty good at that. They delivered punishing hits to the Ravens -- and withstood some, too.

Although the Ravens built a 9-3 lead late in the third quarter, you knew they really didn't have an edge and that the defensive battle probably would be settled in the final seconds. After the Steelers pulled within three points early in the fourth quarter, you were convinced of it.

And when the Steelers put together that winning, 92-yard drive, it became clear how special a team they really are. Their top-ranked defense receives all of the attention, and deservedly so, but their offense can deliver when it must. The Steeler have won five straight for the first time since 2004, and you don't do that without some offensive production.

When it mattered most, Ben Roethlisberger, Ward and the Steelers' other receivers stepped up to the challenge.

Roethlisberger connected with Ward and Nate Washington on big completions during the touchdown drive. Then, on third-and-goal from the Baltimore 4, Roethlisberger scrambled, first to his left, then to his right, and just before he needed to throw the ball away, he found Santonio Holmes, who barely got himself and the ball over the goal line. Officials actually ruled that it wasn't a touchdown, but a review reversed the call, and the Steelers had the victory and the division title.

Despite the loss, the Ravens still cling to the No. 6 playoff spot -- ahead of the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins because of a better conference record. But their outlook -- with games remaining against Dallas and Jacksonville -- would be much rosier if not for the controversial call reversal.

A reversal of fortune for the Steelers.

"I think (the touchdown) speaks to the football character of our team," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "I'm just proud of these guys. There were several reasons and instances where the faint of heart would let go of the rope in that football game, and they didn't. Hopefully, it's a window to what we're capable of. We'll see as we go forward."

We'll see in Tennessee, where the Steelers face another strong defense on the road, a defense weakened, however, by the potential loss of tackle Albert Haynesworth, who left Sunday's game with Houston with a knee injury that could sideline him for the remainder of the regular season.

"To be able to control our own destiny, that's all we can ask for," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "It's all on us now."

Someone asked Foote if the Steelers were a special team. His answer provided the sense of perspective that has helped put Pittsburgh in this position.

"Ain't no special team until you win that Super Bowl," Foote said.

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