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McNair, Ravens deal fatal blow to Steelers' playoff hopes

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- 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 on Sunday.

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 27-24 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, 2 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 Sunday. "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
outgained 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 Dan 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.

Game 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.