PITTSBURGH — Larry Foote has no illusions about the Pittsburgh Steelers catching the Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC North even after Sunday's emotionally charged 23-20 victory over their bitter rivals.
He doesn't exactly care either.
Sure, homefield in the playoffs — if the Steelers manage to make it — would be nice. But the 32-year-old doesn't believe it's necessary for Pittsburgh to get where it wants to go.
"We've just got to get a ticket," Foote said. "The last few years, the Giants have done it, and Green Bay has done it."
Heck, so have the Steelers (7-5), who revived their season in a dramatic fourth quarter in which they scored 10 points to snap Baltimore's 15-game home winning streak.
Pittsburgh won three road playoff games on its way to the 2006 Super Bowl, a route it would like have to travel again if the Ravens can maintain their two-game lead over the Steelers and Bengals with a month to go in the season.
It's a cushion Foote doesn't see evaporating.
"I'm sure they're probably going to win the division," Foote said. "I can't see them losing two more games."
If Foote and the rest of his fellow 30-somethings can continue to muster the toughness they showed while rallying past the Ravens, they might not lose two more games between now and next season, either.
In one of the toughest places in the NFL to play — let alone win — backup quarterback Charlie Batch passed for 276 yards, directed two late scoring drives and played like someone ready to turn 28, not 38.
Linebacker James Harrison and his aching 34-year-old knees strip-sacked Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to set up the game-tying touchdown and 31-year-old safety Troy Polamalu's presence seemed to energize a defense that lacked the kind of "splash plays" that have been the unit's calling card under coordinator Dick LeBeau.
It was a vintage performance few outside the locker room expected.
Not without Ben Roethlisberger, whose sprained right shoulder relegated him to the role of head cheerleader for a third straight week. Not with a patchwork offensive line that included a rookie seventh-round draft pick making his first NFL start. Not with cornerback Ike Taylor going down on the game's second play with an ankle injury so severe he could miss his first game in eight years when the Steelers host San Diego on Sunday.
Yet the Steelers survived anyway, evening the season series with the Ravens and postponing Baltimore's division title plans for at least a week or two.
"We're still alive," safety Ryan Clark said. "But we need some more games like this."
Pittsburgh just might get them.
The Steelers play three of their final four at home starting with the reeling Chargers (4-8). Roethlisberger is one week closer to getting back on the field, though the offense appears to be in good hands until his return after Batch avoided the three-interception nightmare that cost Pittsburgh so dearly in a loss to Cleveland a week ago.
Save for a late interception — one the defense quickly atoned for — and an overthrow of a wide-open Mike Wallace at the end of the first half, Batch was efficient and poised. He completed 25 of 36 passes, including a touchdown to Heath Miller that tied the game late and was a perfect 5 of 5 on the game-winning drive.
How good was Batch? His 276 yards were the most he's thrown in a game since Nov. 18, 2001 while playing for the Detroit Lions.
To put that in perspective, Roethlisberger was a freshman at Miami (Ohio) the last time Batch had a better day as a pro.
"I've been in the league 15 years," Batch said. "I've been a starter in this league, and the one thing you can't do is dwell on the past. It's a long season, and no matter what, all I can ask for is another opportunity."
He may get another one next weekend, four days after he turns 38. Batch is the oldest player in a locker room filled with guys closer to the end of their career than the beginning. That experience allows him to play with an even keel that guards against panic when things don't go as planned. It also allows him to summon a sense of urgency when necessary.
Batch had both on a day the Steelers provided a reminder that the core group that's won two Super Bowl rings in the last eight years isn't quite done yet.
"Charlie came in and played the game that we needed him to play today to win," Harrison said. "It's not surprising to us. It may be to you, but not to us."
While Polamalu's return was quieter, it was no less impactful. The perennial All-Pro has been dogged by a strained right calf that has limited him to all of five quarters before Sunday. He eased his way back in, taking the occasional breather to make sure he didn't overtax himself.
The result was a defense that limited Flacco to 16 of 34 passing for 188 yards and sacked him three times on an afternoon that felt like old times for a bunch of old guys.
"You know (Polamalu) is going to make a big play when it's time," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "Just to have him down the stretch, we know we're going to need him, because it's time for us to make a run."
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