BALTIMORE (AP) _ Watching Jamal Lewis carry the Baltimore Ravens into the playoffs last season gave Bill Cowher reason to believe his Pittsburgh Steelers could follow a similar path in 2004.
The offseason addition of free agent running back Duce Staley solidified the notion.
Staley ran for 92 yards last week and Jerome Bettis contributed three touchdowns in a 24-21 victory over Oakland. If the tandem can enjoy similar success Sunday against the Ravens, a shift of power in the AFC North could be at hand.
Staley came to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia because he was tired of an offense that relied heavily on the passing game. The Steelers were much the same during their 6-10 season of a year ago, but Cowher now plans to use quarterback Tommy Maddox and his talented band of receivers as a secondary weapon.
``Based on what I've seen, clearly they want to be more decisive in running the ball,'' Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
That's OK with Staley, who said, ``In Pittsburgh, you're definitely going to run the ball. That's one thing you know as a running back.''
The Ravens prefer to run, too. Lewis amassed 2,066 yards rushing in 2003, the second-highest total in NFL history, and Baltimore went 10-6 to win its first division title.
In the opener against Cleveland, however, little went according to plan. Lewis gained only 57 yards on 20 carries, second-year quarterback Kyle Boller threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and even the staunch Baltimore defense had a pair of pivotal lapses in a 20-3 defeat.
``How we respond is the most important thing right now,'' Billick said.
The Ravens don't even want to consider the possibility of starting the season with two division losses.
``We're not thinking about that at all,'' linebacker Ray Lewis said. ``You don't put something like going 0-2 in your head. Once you do that, you're done. We don't think like that around here.''
Baltimore's chances of winning increase when Jamal Lewis is successful. A year ago, he ran for only 69 yards in the Ravens' 34-15 season-opening loss to the Steelers. He gained 114 in the rematch, and Baltimore prevailed.
The Steelers could muster only 56 yards rushing in that overtime defeat, but their offense is now more of a threat with the addition of Staley and their emphasis on the running game.
``Pittsburgh loves to run the ball, and Pittsburgh's running game is back,'' Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter said. ``Jerome Bettis was the guy, and now Duce is stepping in. That's a pretty good 1-2 punch.''
Bettis and his successor have accepted their new roles well.
``You take a guy of Jerome's stature and bring in a high-profile guy like Duce, there's always going to be talk about it during the preseason,'' Cowher said. ``And when I named Duce the starter, there was a lot of talk about how that was going to play out. But they have great respect for one another.''
And the opposition has great respect for them.
``Duce fits into their attack. It's not like they brought in a guy and added a new dimension,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. ``They've got a very good offense, and I think they identified the guy that matched them best and went out and got him. He complements Bettis in that they both run the same way _ hard.''
Pittsburgh leads the series 11-5, but the Ravens have had the upper hand of late and are favorites to win a second consecutive division title.
``The winner of this division is going through Baltimore,'' Cowher said. ``They've got all the pieces back from last year's team, and it was a solid team. We've got a big challenge ahead of us.''