Check out the No. 19 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.
The game meant nothing and everything.
Thanks to second-place Cincinnati’s loss to Cleveland 4 1/2 hours earlier, the Ravens entered the 2003 regular-season finale having already clinched the first division championship in team history. Conventional wisdom called for head coach Brian Billick to rest his key players in preparation for a wild-card playoff showdown with Tennessee six days later, but there was nothing ordinary about the Week 17 opponent.
“This is the Pittsburgh Steelers,” said Billick about his decision to play his starters. “It’s a rivalry. You can’t cheat the game. You can’t cheat the fans.”
Perhaps more important than Baltimore’s desire to break a five-game losing streak against its AFC North adversary and build momentum going into the playoffs was the matter of All-Pro running back Jamal Lewis putting an exclamation point on his historic season. Voted the AP 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, the 24-year-old entered the night needing 48 yards to become the fifth player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Having already broken the NFL’s single-game rushing record with 295 yards in Week 2, Lewis would touch the ball a whopping 413 times that season while accounting for 46 percent of Baltimore’s total yards and 40 percent of its offensive touchdowns.
The Ravens offense was indeed a one-man show.
The 245-pound Lewis was not only aiming for his 12th 100-yard rushing performance of the year, but 153 rushing yards stood between him and Eric Dickerson’s single-season league record of 2,105 set in 1984. Accomplishing that wouldn’t be easy against a Pittsburgh defense that didn’t want a rival to set a record on its watch.
The bruising back carried five times for 39 yards on Baltimore’s first drive before Anthony Wright threw an interception inside the red zone. However, Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed picked off Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox two plays later to set the stage for history.
Lewis gained nine yards on first down to reach exactly 2,000 yards, but the next play would send 70,000 fans into a frenzy at M&T Bank Stadium. Running between left guard Edwin Mulitalo and future Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden, Lewis broke free untouched for a 25-yard touchdown. His league-best 16th run of 20 or more yards that season left no doubt that the 2000 first-round pick from Tennessee would be remembered in NFL rushing lore.
The Steelers would clamp down after that as Lewis would gain only 41 yards on 20 more carries the rest of the way to fall 39 yards short of Dickerson’s record, but the night served as both a celebration and a reminder of the intensity of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry that endures today. Billick never took his foot off the gas as the teams played into overtime with Matt Stover kicking a 47-yard field goal to give the Ravens their first win against Pittsburgh in more than two years and first home victory over their bitter rival since the inaugural 1996 campaign.
You never would have known the game was meaningless by watching as chippy behavior persisted and Ravens punter Dave Zastudil suffered a broken nose and a concussion — and returned to action — over the course of the game. Billick’s decision to play his starters the entire way would be second-guessed for a long time after Baltimore was eliminated by the Titans the following week.
But that night belonged to Lewis, who passed the likes of Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, and O.J. Simpson on the single-season rushing list despite failing to match Dickerson.
“I’m not disappointed,” Lewis said after the 13-10 victory. “The opportunity was there, and we went at it. My line, they blocked well. It was in reach, but we didn’t get it. I think second is good.”