Super Bowl champions are made from the accumulation of team and individual milestones over the span of a season.
The Steelers' shocking 23-20 win at the Ravens Sunday doesn't guarantee Pittsburgh of anything short of a seven-win season, but it could turn out be the pivotal turning point for both teams.
Teams want to start playing their best ball after November. Just ask the New York Giants, winners of last year's Super Bowl who started the season 7-7. New York began their run with a much-needed lashing of their inner-city rivals, the mouthy New York Jets.
A year earlier, Green Bay went from 8-6 to Super Bowl champs after dramatic victories over the Giants and rival Bears to close out the season. After starting 7-5 in 2005, Pittsburgh rode the hot hand of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and their dominant defense to a 4-0 finish to the regular season.
Pittsburgh then swept the top three seeds in the AFC playoffs en route to a victory in Super Bowl XL. A bullying 21-9 victory over a solid Bears team in the snow at Heinz Field was the tonic the Steelers needed to regain the swagger that had been missing for most of the '05 season.
But the win Sunday could affect more than just Pittsburgh from a psychological standpoint.
For years, Baltimore has been waiting for the moment when they could host a vulnerable Pittsburgh team and give them a beating that would send a ripple through the Steelers' franchise. This was supposed to be the Ravens' coronation—a passing of the torch as not only the baddest cat in the division, but possibly in the entire AFC.
Instead, the Ravens played up to their stereotype as a team that can't win the games that would catapult them to an elite level.
The Ravens also gave the Steelers their swagger back, along with a pulse in the AFC title race. Deep down, Baltimore still can't get over their inferiority complex of the Steelers, and Pittsburgh knows it. The two teams would face off again for the rubber match in the Wild Card round if the season ended today.
There's still a quarter of a season to play before the playoffs begin, but if Sunday's game is a sign of where both teams are heading, it could lead to an interesting playoff matchup.
No one from either team knows how vital it is to kick a rival when they're down than Baltimore's Ray Lewis. After being kicked around by Pittsburgh throughout the first four years of his career, Lewis and the Ravens broke through in a big way in 2000, as he led a record-setting defense to a Super Bowl XXXV title while the Steelers missed the playoffs for a third straight season. Baltimore defeated the Steelers 13-10 early in the 2001 season and seemed to have completely put Pittsburgh into their rear view mirror.
But then the Ravens established their identity of being a good team that couldn't rise in the biggest games when Pittsburgh came to town in mid-December.
Lewis and the rest of his mates watched Bobby Shaw race 90 yards past everyone for the game-winning touchdown that would give the Steelers back the division—as well as supremacy in the division—for most of the next decade. Pittsburgh knocked out Baltimore 27-10 in the divisional round and would go on to defeat the Ravens in the playoffs two more times over the next 10 years.
Since the '01 season, Pittsburgh has won two Super Bowls and played in a third, while Baltimore has enjoyed much success but hasn't been able to piece together a championship season.
Because they're still two games behind the Ravens, Pittsburgh has an uphill climb to catch Baltimore in the AFC North race. But with three of their remaining four games at home against only one team with a winning record, the Steelers have been given a golden opportunity to build momentum for a playoff push.
Yes, they'll probably have to win three playoff games on the road to reach New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, but this group has won three road playoff games before, and—after Sunday—they must feel like they have the fortitude to do it again.
At 9-3, Baltimore has a much tougher road to the playoffs—one that starts with a Beltway battle with the surging Washington Redskins, who are armed with wonder kid Robert Griffin III. The Ravens then host the 9-3 Broncos and defending champ Giants before ending the season at the 7-5 Bengals.
Baltimore must not only find a way to win enough games down the stretch to hold off the Steelers and Bengals, but they must find a way to regain themselves after suffering a setback no one saw coming.
If they can't, Baltimore may find themselves heading back to raucous Pittsburgh again in January—the place where so many of their nightmares took place in the past, and where many once-promising seasons such as this one have ended.