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Pittsburgh’s steel curtain falls on defending champs

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PITTSBURGH — For all the chattering and name-calling, all the posturing and preening that took place for weeks among the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, nothing changed — except one thing.

The Ravens are no longer defending their NFL championship.

Just as in their two regular-season games, the Steelers' top-ranked defense was much better than Baltimore's No. 2-ranked defense. The Steelers' offense was vastly superior. Kordell Stewart was calm and confident, Elvis Grbac was tentative and confused.

So, after arguing on nearly every issue all season, the Steelers and Ravens quickly came to a consensus following Pittsburgh's 27-10 playoff victory Sunday, its second convincing win over Baltimore in just over a month.

"They're better," said Shannon Sharpe, the usually chatty but, at least for one day, subdued Ravens tight end. "I looked up midway through the third quarter and we had like 78 yards in offense, and they had the ball almost 30 minutes. It was very frustrating."

For the Steelers, it was eminently satisfying, and it sent them on to Sunday's AFC championship game against New England in front of their noisy, towel-twirling fans at Heinz Field.

The Steelers listened all week to the chest-thumping from the Ravens, who seemed to greatly overestimate their ability to keep winning playoff games on the road. They were 5-0 in the postseason, with only one game at home.

"We couldn't wait to play this game," Steelers safety Lee Flowers said. "We were ready to play this game Monday."

The Steelers learned minutes before kickoff that Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis, out for seven weeks with a groin injury, wouldn't play because of a bad reaction to a painkilling shot. But it had no visible affect on their demeanor or confidence, with center Jeff Hartings saying, "No disrespect at all, but it's not Jerome Bettis' team and he knows that."

As they quickly fell behind 20-0 before they getting their initial first down, the Ravens must have wondered if they were Grbac's team — or if they should have kept last year's starter, Trent Dilfer.

"Grbac doesn't like to get hit, so when we got close to him, we just tried to brush him if nothing else, just to let him know we were close by," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "When a quarterback isn't confident, that makes for a tough day. We knew he wasn't going to beat us."

The Ravens' running game wasn't about to, gaining only 22 yards on 11 carries. Terry Allen, coming off consecutive 100-yard games, was held to 11 yards.

"They talked about the last two games," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "This isn't Minnesota. This isn't Miami. We had a pretty good idea we could shut down their run game."

Unable to run or throw, the Ravens' only threat was Jermaine Lewis, who had a league playoff-record 88-yard punt return touchdown in the third quarter. That still left the Ravens trailing 20-10, and Stewart — an efficient 12-of-22 for 154 yards — quickly responded with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.

Amos Zereoue added 63 yards and a pair of 1-yard scoring runs as the Steelers dominated the Ravens.

just as they did Nov. 4 at Heinz Field — only this time, Pittsburgh won. Then, Kris Brown's four missed field goals proved decisive in Baltimore's 13-10 victory.

This time, the Steelers didn't let Brown's kicking become a factor. He missed a 35-yarder, but hit from 21 and 46 yards as the Steelers advanced to the AFC championship game for the fourth time in 10 seasons under Cowher, all in Pittsburgh.

Their 1-2 record in those games isn't that great, and Cowher said, "What we have to do is finish this. We have to finish strong and finish on top. You're only going to be remembered for your last game."

That's what seemed to trouble the Ravens most.

"It's tough when your expectations are so high and you don't meet them. That's disappointing," offensive lineman Edwin Mulitalo said.

NOTES: The Steelers outgained the Ravens 297-150, giving them a 1,121-540 edge in their three games. Pittsburgh won in Baltimore 26-21 on Dec. 16 . . . Cowher insisted Bettis will be ready for New England . . . Burress caught 17 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns against Baltimore this season . . . Steelers LB Earl Holmes will have an MRI exam Monday on his sprained left knee, which forced him out in the second quarter . . . The Ravens had three first downs in the first three quarters — all during a field-goal drive late in the second quarter.