It’s Round III between the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens and the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers with the latest installment of this brutal grudge match carrying the highest stakes ever in the series’ history. The survivor of next Sunday’s AFC title game clash at Heinz Field advances to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
"Round III, man," running back Le’Ron McClain said in the locker room following the Ravens’ 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Tennessee Titans when asked if he preferred to play the Steelers one more time. "Ring the bell. Let’s battle. We need to get ready for another fight. I told them after the last game, ‘We’ll see you again.’"
By virtue of the Steelers’ convincing 35-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Ravens (13-5) get a second rematch after losing to Pittsburgh (13-4) by a combined total of seven points during a pair of regular-season losses. The Steelers have never defeated Baltimore three times in one season, but did beat the old Cleveland Browns three times during the 1994 season.
"Whoever is the next team we face," tight end Todd Heap said, "we’ll go in there with confidence."
"We’re on our way," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "So, it’s next stop."
The Ravens lost 23-20 in overtime at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 as Steelers kicker Jeff Reed booted a 46-yard field goal that just cleared the left upright. Baltimore led 13-3 in the third quarter until calamity struck with Pittsburgh scoring two touchdowns in a 15-second span.
First, Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes accelerated past gambling cornerback Fabian Washington for a 38-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger. Then, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was hit from behind and stripped of the football by NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison with Lawrence Timmons returning the fumble seven yards for a touchdown.
In the second game, the Ravens were edged 13-9 in Baltimore as the Steelers won in controversial fashion on a much-debated Holmes touchdown catch over whether the football broke the plane of the goal. Ultimately, referee Walt Coleman determined after an instant-replay review that Holmes had two feet down and that the ball broke the plane.
The win allowed the Steelers to clinch the division title.
Afterward, they taunted the Ravens in the locker room: "We’re still the No. 1 defense! We showed you boys how to play defense!"
Although the Ravens are five-point underdogs in this third meeting, they have embraced that mentality all season in engineering a dramatic turnaround from last season’s 5-11 campaign.
"You always want to earn it," McClain said. "You want to keep banging, keep fighting. That’s what it’s going to take next week in the AFC championship."
The Ravens seem better equipped than in previous years for this kind of matchup.
The defense has maintained its tradition of stinginess. Flacco has developed into a consistent, cautious quarterback with the capability of striking deep occasionally. And a rugged running game has been strong with the exception of its disappearing act against the Titans with just 50 yards on 30 carries.
"I think this is the first time we have been a complete team," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has vowed to play against the Steelers despite a strained right shoulder. "This is the first time I have been on a complete team in my whole football playing career.
"There is something special going on around here. We aren’t going to say what it is until we find out where the road ends. We are feeling really good."
When the Ravens and the Steelers get together on a football field, it’s generally an absolute blood feud.
There have been allegations that the Ravens have placed bounties on hated Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall. Suggs eventually backing off his comments that seemed to admit the presence of bounties after drawing a stern admonition from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
There have been huge brawls, including the one between Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Baltimore cornerback James Trapp years ago that caused both players to be ejected after a fight that degenerated into Trapp leaping into the air and stomping on Burress’ helmet.
And there have been gigantic hits like the one from middle linebacker Ray Lewis that broke Mendenhall’s shoulder earlier this season, linebacker Bart Scott planting his helmet in Roethlisberger’s chest a few seasons ago and driving him into the turf as well as Ward lifting Scott and free safety Ed Reed high into the air with his vicious downfield blocks.
Now, the Ravens will need to maintain their focus on doing what’s necessary to make it to the Super Bowl by solving the puzzle of how to defeat the Steelers.
"Obviously, we want Pittsburgh, but we’ve got one more game to go to the Super Bowl and that’s all we’re thinking about," strong safety Jim Leonhard said. "We feel like beating Tennessee wasn’t our goal. Our goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win that. This was a stepping stone."
Added Suggs: "We can’t wait for next week. Not everybody gets to play in the AFC championship."
After beating the Titans and becoming only the second sixth seed to ever topple a top seed in NFL history, the wild-card Ravens have no doubts about their ability to overcome the odds.
"The parity in this league is unbelievable," Scott said. "Anybody’s capable of beating anybody. It’s a four-game tournament and we’re at the final four. This thing’s wide open and anybody can win it."