Pressbox/Joe Platania — On a bleak Sunday night in Pittsburgh 18 years ago, the Ravens suffered one of the most humiliating losses in their history.
The nationally televised 37-0 defeat at the since-demolished Three Rivers Stadium not only left Baltimore with what to date is still its only road shutout loss, but it gave the Steelers a 3-1 regular-season edge in a lifetime series that was still far from reaching its boiling point.
Even though the Ravens were within two wins of tying the still-nascent head-to-head series, the blanking left the second-year franchise with little hope or optimism for the future.
The Ravens won just two of their next six games and finished the 1997 season 6-9-1, while the Steelers went on to the AFC title game and narrowly missed getting to Super Bowl XXXII.
It has been that long since Baltimore has been within a pair of wins of finally catching the Steelers; the Ravens’ 20-17 home win Dec. 27 was their seventh in the last 10 regular-season meetings with Pittsburgh and brought them to within 21-19 overall, excluding playoffs.
It marks the Ravens’ most extended run of success against the Steelers, and the two latest wins not only gave Baltimore its third season series sweep against Pittsburgh — following sweeps in 2006 and 2011 — but it also may have dealt a fatal blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff chances.
The Steelers (9-6) lost control of their own playoff fate and will miss out on the postseason for a third time during a four-season span if the New York Jets beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, regardless of how Pittsburgh fares against the Cleveland Browns.
“It’s Pittsburgh,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “So, [when it comes to] records, scoring, it doesn’t matter how good they were playing coming in. Nothing matters when you play Pittsburgh.”
Thanks to this season’s 1-6 start, the Ravens (5-10) saw their hopes of playing in January extinguished long ago, and they seemed to enjoy playing spoiler to the team they relish beating the most.
“If we can’t get in [the playoffs], then you can’t get in, either,” Ravens cornerback/safety Lardarius Webb said. “Exactly, that’s how we want it.”
Webb has been with the Ravens since 2009 and went through the playoff loss before the recent run of regular-season success began. But fellow cornerback Shareece Wright, new to the Ravens this year, was schooled right away on how intense the rivalry has been.
“[The win is] huge for the Ravens’ organization,” said Wright, who tipped away a fourth-down pass late in the game to preserve the win. “I’ve been watching football my whole life, and [teammate] Jimmy [Smith] has been here the whole time, so he’s been telling me about this game.
“He’s been telling me since I got here, ‘That Steelers game is going to be where it’s at,’ I got a taste of it. It’s exactly what I thought it was going to be.”
Like most players in Ravens history, Webb and Wright are not from Baltimore and didn’t live through the torturous sports run the Steel City inflicted on Charm City.
The Pittsburgh Pirates won two World Series against the Orioles in 1971 and 1979, coming from a 3-1 games deficit in the latter. The Steelers eliminated the Baltimore Colts from the playoffs after both the 1975 and 1976 seasons.
Once the Ravens were born, things didn’t improve much.
Including the aforementioned shutout, the Steelers beat the Ravens 11 of the first 15 times the teams met during the regular-season, and would go on to knock Baltimore out of the playoffs in two Divisional playoff games following the 2001 and 2010 seasons, as well as in the 2008 AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens got postseason revenge last winter — eliminating the Steelers at Heinz Field during Wild Card Weekend, 30-17.
But for the first time, a rivalry punctuated by on-field fights, obscene T-shirts and locker-room trash talk has been trending toward the Ravens, even during a season that has seemed more hapless than most.
“To sweep Pittsburgh is a very valuable thing,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s a very meaningful thing. And this team accomplished that.
“When you have failure in life, sometimes woven into the failure are great successes and great wins. Woven into our season are pretty amazing successes and wins that our players have had [with] the way they have stuck together, the way they’ve practiced, the way they’ve improved, even with the injuries.”
To say the least, the Steelers — egged on by the usual horde of traveling supporters that waved their “Terrible Towels” throughout the game — haven’t been pleased with the turn of events.
“It’s the NFL,” receiver Antonio Brown said. “You can’t take any team for granted. Everybody is going to come out and give us their best shot, and today we didn’t play our best.”
For the Steelers, things look as bleak today as they did for the Ravens 18 years ago.
If the pendulum ever swings back to the black and gold, they will remember how Baltimore took 2015 away from them.
Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.
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