BALTIMORE - For a team that lost its biggest game in 2 years on a pair of disputable replay calls, the Ravens sure weren't interested in replaying the events of the evening.

A badly explained overturn gave the Steelers the winning touchdown in their fifth comeback win of the year; the AFC North title at 11-3; and a first-round bye.

The Ravens' 13-9 loss left it at 9-5, fighting for a playoff spot, with a tough game Saturday night in Dallas - and a sour taste in their mouth. They spent the postgame rinsing it out.

"There aren't any freakin' excuses," said linebacker Ray Lewis, whose defense folded late in the fourth.

There wasn't much clarity, either.

Down by three points, on third-and-goal from the Ravens' 4, Santonio Holmes caught scrambling Ben Roethlisberger's pass just over the threshold of the goal line. On the field, head linesman Paul Weidner ruled no touchdown. Fourth down, with 43 seconds to play, and a field goal likely sends it to overtime.

The pertinent question: Did the ball break the plane?

The answer: None of your business.

Referee Walt Coleman ducked under the replay screen's hood and emerged with a call reversal that changed the landscape of the playoff race, and maybe the playoffs, period.

Initially, he explained that, since Holmes' feet were down in the end zone, the Steelers would be awarded a touchdown.


So, was the ball across the goal line?

Did it need to be? Were two feet down enough?

After the game, when questioned by a pool reporter, Coleman clarified:

"He had to have two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball, breaking the plane of the goal line . . . When he gained control of the ball, the ball was breaking the plane, and then he fell into the field of play."

O . . . K.

The play completed a 92-yard drive by an offense that had managed six points in the first 59 minutes of the game. Then, building on the momentum of their previous possession - Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 54 yards for a field goal - Big Ben got hot.

He hit Hines Ward three times for 36 yards and hit Nate Washington three times for 49 yards. A spike stopped the clock with 64 seconds left (an unnecessary stoppage, perhaps, despite having only one timeout), and Roethlisberger missed tight end Matt Spaeth - and nearly turned the ball over.

The next play was classic Ben, and one that will live forever in the annals of the teams' rivalry.

Roethlisberger was flushed right, scrambled back left and found Holmes for a score. Or did he?

"I don't have an opinion," said Ravens end Trevor Pryce. "If I did give one, I'd get fined."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, as clever as they come, certainly refocused his team's energy after the loss, but he couldn't help give his opinion.

"It didn't look to me as if the ball crossed the plane," Harbaugh said. "I asked for an explanation, but no one was explaining too much at that point in time."

The late replay controversy not only overshadowed the brilliance of perhaps the best two defenses in the league, it obscured another iffy replay call.

Steelers running back Gary Russell plunged into the middle of the line, seeking a yard to extend a drive in the second quarter at the Steelers' 29. He was given the yard, though it looked like he was short.

Harbaugh challenged. He lost - but at least he learned why.

"The official said he couldn't get a definitive angle on that one," Harbaugh said.

So, instead of punting, the Steelers marched 58 more yards and eventually tied the game at 3.

That's the sort of game it was.

That's the sort of game it should be.

The Steelers' defense entered ranked first across the board, and it played that way.

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, a first-rounder out of the University of Delaware and Audubon (N.J.) High, bled from the cheek and elbow after his two-sack, two-interception, 11-for-28 performance. It netted him 115 yards and a 22.2 passer rating, worst of his brief career.

"They're the number one defense in the league," he said. "They did a good job."

This was a reversal of pattern, since the Ravens (the Ravens?!) were the league's best offense over the past eight games. In their last seven wins they outscored their opponents 228-83. Flacco was firing at a 95.6 rating.

Then, yesterday, they did little against the NFL's best.

A 46-yard punt return from Jim Leonhard set up the Ravens' first field goal; a couple of quick hits from Flacco and a decent spurt of running from Le'Ron McClain set up the second for a 6-3 halftime lead; and Holmes' fumble in the middle of the third quarter gave away another three points to make it 9-3.

The Ravens, meanwhile, rode their defense - top three in the key categories - in winning seven of eight. They rode it again yesterday, until the fourth.

It was a happy ending for Holmes, who also muffed a punt reception and dropped two passes.

"I was kind of hurt when he called me down on the 1-inch line," Holmes said. And then, the reversal: "That pretty much saved our season right there."

And, maybe, ruined the Ravens'. *