BALTIMORE -- Given the tempest roaring through the Steelers' battered offense, Dick LeBeau's defense couldn't escape the reality that it pretty much had to pitch a shutout here last night. Even common excellence would not do, because the likelihood that a Dennis Dixon-operated attack would be able to carve 20 or 30 points out of Baltimore's defense was similar to the chances of Ray Lewis winning the Miss America pageant.
Even 17 points seemed beyond the possible.
But there we were at the 11 o'clock news with the Steelers somehow ahead, 17-14, in a crucial AFC North conflagration that a concussed Ben Roethlisberger was watching from the sideline.
All that was necessary for Mike Tomlin's team to nail down a wildly unlikely victory and jump back into the playoff picture was one defensive stop as the Ravens faced third-and-22 at the Baltimore 39 as the M&T Bank Stadium clocks blinked inside four minutes.
Too much to ask, evidently.
Joe Flacco found Derrick Mason in the middle of the Steelers' zone for 17 yards, and Baltimore coach John Harbaugh sent the punt team out to the vociferous boos of more than 71,000. Harbaugh called timeout to consider their position, then sent Flacco back out to try his luck at fourth-and-5.
How many Steelers can miss Ray Rice on one play?
A minimum of three, evidently.
Rice beat James Farrior across the middle to take a short Flacco toss, ran through Ty Carter's tackle, ran through Ike Taylor's tackle, and didn't stop until he was bumped across the sideline at the Steelers' 10.
Four plays later, Billy Cundiff chipped home a 24-yard field goal that erased the Steelers' only lead.
"He's a quality player man," Tomlin marveled after the 5-8, 210-pounder slashed his defense for 88 rush yards and another 67 on five receptions. "It kind of all goes through him and he got us at critical times."
Rice's 44-yard rhumba was the fourth pass of 20 yards or more against the Steelers' secondary. Pile those on the five passes of 20 or more the awful Kansas City Chiefs completed last week and maybe you see a trend developing.
The fact is, Dixon deserved better than this.
"I liked his demeanor throughout," Tomlin said. "He made some plays and represented himself relatively well. We wanted to limit his exposure, that's probably the best way to say it. We wanted to run the ball, get the ball on the perimeter, let him find some rhythm and settle in.
"We weren't going to play scared by any stretch."
Translation: We were pretty much hand-cuffed.
There were all kinds of excuses available to the offense, but none as handy as Dixon's "exposure." It's a shame this one will be remembered for Dixon's first career interception, the one he fired into the arms of rookie linebacker Paul Kruger in front of Santonio Holmes in the overtime.
But where are the excuses for Dick LeBeau's unit?
Baltimore went 73 yards to a touchdown right through it on nine plays the first time it touched the ball, with Flacco hitting all five of his passes for 50 of those yards. Typically, LeBeau's schemes confound the old Blue Hen. The Steelers picked him off five times in their previous two meetings, three of those in the AFC title game.
That Dixon was able to erase that lead with a 33-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes was a small miracle, but the defense gave the lead right back when safety Ryan Clark, who dropped interceptions in each of the previous two games, allowed Mark Clayton to pull down a 54-yard pass.
It didn't matter a whit that Clark arrived in plenty of time to prevent that completion, yet inexplicably, he never looked for the football. On the very next play, Derrick Mason beat Ike Taylor on the left edge of the end zone for a 14-7 Ravens lead that stood until halftime.
But even after Dixon rallied them to a three-point lead with a 24-yard run early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers remained willing and able to give it back.
"Shouldn't have gone to overtime," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "We still had the right opportunity. We had enough points out there to win the game. We've got to finish strong.
"We've lost the last three. Those three losses could drag you down, cause you never know."
Right. So now you can play scared.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com .