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OWINGS MILLS — Four years ago in a wild brawl, Baltimore Ravens cornerback James Trapp snatched off Plaxico Burressâ€™ helmet and stomped his cleats on the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiverâ€™s unprotected stomach. Now, the Baltimore Ravens have an opportunity to inflict even greater damage to their archrivalâ€™s prospects.
In the latest installment of this bloody rivalry today at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens (8-2) can virtually eliminate the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers (4-6) from playoff contention.
Extinguishing the Steelersâ€™ flickering playoff hopes isnâ€™t the top item on the Ravensâ€™ agenda, though.
â€œThatâ€™s for them to focus on if they choose to,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œIt makes no difference to us. What this game does or doesnâ€™t do for them — weâ€™re being greedy here — itâ€™s about what it does for us.â€
Because of their commanding three-game advantage in the AFC North, the Ravens can basically assure themselves of a division title and the corresponding automatic playoff berth by defeating the Steelers and the Bengals within the next five days.
The Steelers are in a much more precarious situation.
â€œWe have no margin for error,â€ Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. â€œThis is a big football game for us. Weâ€™re playing one of the elite teams in the AFC and maybe the NFL.
â€œThis will be a measuring stick for us. You look at Baltimore, they have no weaknesses. We will have to play at a very high level and even play our best game to even have a chance to compete with them.â€
While striving toward their goal of marching toward an even more towering position atop the AFC North, the Ravens will rely heavily on veteran quarterback Steve McNair. The Baltimore newcomer has a rich history against the Steelers with a 9-4 record as a starter, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
â€œThis win would mean a lot because we want to wrap up our division as soon as possible,â€ McNair said. â€œWe donâ€™t want to wait until the 12th game of the season. Thatâ€™s why we have to stay focused and stay mentally prepared and match their intensity and their physical capability.â€
Since Billick took over the play-calling duties after firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, the Ravens are 4-0 and McNairâ€™s improved play has been at the center of an offensive turnaround.
Under Billick, McNair has completed 91 of 135 passes for 1,013 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions and a 95.7 passer rating. Under Fassel, he completed just 95 of 169 passes for 915 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 64.1 passer rating.
â€œWhen things are going well, the quarterback is the hero,â€ McNair said. â€œMy comfort level is as comfortable as I can get right now.
â€œThe guys are getting comfortable, we are getting used to Brian calling the plays. He puts us in good situations. Thatâ€™s the key."
As for intensity, it’s never an issue in this bitter series, in which the Ravens have won the past three meetings in Baltimore.
Whether it was Shannon Sharpe calling Burress, â€œPlexiglas,â€ or Steelers linebacker Joey Porter shoving an injured Todd Heap to the ground when he was essentially defenseless with a sprained ankle two years ago or Porter challenging Ray Lewis to a fight three years by the Ravensâ€™ team bus in Pittsburgh, itâ€™s always a spicy encounter.
â€œThereâ€™s no love lost,â€ Heap said. â€œItâ€™s been this way since the beginning of the Ravens. You can see in the past a lot of things have happened during the game.
"More often than not, thereâ€™s going to be some sort of unsportsmanlike flag. Iâ€™m not saying thatâ€™s OK or that we want that or anything. Thatâ€™s just the type of rivalry it is.
Ray Lewis is likely to be a game-time decision today after practicing Friday for the first time in three weeks since bruising his back in a collision with safety Ed Reed on Nov. 5 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, whoâ€™s questionable with a hyperextended knee, has vowed to play today and said heâ€™ll be wary of the Ravensâ€™ secondary targeting his knee intentionally. Ward upped the ante from mere dislike to downright hatred.
â€œThe coaches hate each other,â€ Ward told Pittsburgh reporters. â€œThe players hate each other. Thereâ€™s no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner.
â€œThereâ€™s no need to hide it. They know, and we know it. Itâ€™s going to be one of those black-and-blue games.â€
The feud reached its emotional apex in 2003 when Porter, sidelined with a gunshot wound to the butt, took umbrage at Lewis mocking his trademark boot motion after a tackle. Their nasty argument was eventually quelled without either resorting to violence.
â€œItâ€™s going to be a passionate game,â€ wide receiver Derrick Mason said. â€œWe could play in a parking lot and it would still be a physical game. Thatâ€™s why the rivalry is so good, because you know youâ€™re not going to get a fluff-fluff game.â€
Although the Steelersâ€™ status has diminished since winning the Super Bowl in Detroit last winter as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown an NFL-high 17 interceptions after an offseason marred by a motorcycle accident along with a hernia, the Ravens still pay them their due respect.
Itâ€™s a classic case of the Steelers — at least until their playoff fate is officially determined — owning something the Ravens want after a two-year absence from the postseason and just one playoff victory since winning the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.
â€œWe have to take them seriously,â€ defensive end Terrell Suggs said. â€œThey are the defending champs. Theyâ€™ve earned that right, so weâ€™ll play them like theyâ€™re the defending champs. We want what they have, and we have to take it from them in order to get it.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times inWestminster, Maryland