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Ravens, Steelers to settle AFC title in throwback style

January 17, 2009|By ALAN ROBINSON

PITTSBURGH -- Let those other teams wear throwback uniforms. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are throwback teams, descendants of the single-wing days of leather helmets, canvas pants and single-platoon football.

Their coaches are named John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin, but during a different time it's easy to picture these Ravens and Steelers being coached by George Halas or Curly Lambeau. They hit hard, play with a fury, own a yard-wide mean streak and give an inch as grudgingly as if they were giving up a first down.

In an era of spread formations, five-receiver sets, two-deep zones and a gimmick a minute from some offensive coordinators, the Ravens and Steelers win with defense and toughness. Let other teams try to outfox you -- they'll outhit you, and flash a smile while doing so.

Only last week, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger quick kicked, of all things. If that's not something out of a Sammy Baugh playbook, what is?

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The Ravens and Steelers are so alike in style, attitude and makeup that it's difficult to tell one from the other, so perhaps it's fitting the two rivals will play for the AFC championship tonight. If this isn't the NFL's version of a backyard brawl, what is?

May the nastiest team win.

"When you get two bullies going up against each other, it's about who is the strongest bully," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.

The Steelers are playing their third AFC championship game in five seasons, but their first against a division opponent since meeting and beating the Houston Oilers (now the Titans) during the 1978-79 seasons.

Back then, a frustrated Houston coach Bum Phillips threatened to kick down the door and finally beat the Steelers at their own game and win a title. The Oilers couldn't and, nearly 30 years later, another division team is trying to beat the Steelers at their own game.

"We are very similar teams," Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis said. "They have a lot of the same type personalities we have. You have ultimate competitors on both sides of the football. I think that's where it kind of stirs up."

If the Ravens' Ed Reed isn't the NFL's best safety, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu probably is. If Lewis isn't the league's nastiest player, the Steelers' James Harrison may be. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was voted by fans as the most despised visiting player in Baltimore. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looks and plays like a slightly younger version of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger; Flacco is going for an AFC title barely a year since playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) title game at Delaware.

Pittsburgh has the NFL's best defense statistically in 17 years and Baltimore is second. This is the first time the league's two top defenses are meeting in a conference championship game since Rams vs. Cowboys during the 1978 season.

The Ravens were fourth in rushing, the Steelers an unusually low 23rd, but a now-healthy Willie Parker has restored Pittsburgh's traditionally powerful running game by gaining 262 yards in his last two games.

"I think Pittsburgh has an awesome tradition, obviously, with the Steel Curtain and everything going back," Reed said. "And I think we have a tradition around here."

In this rivalry, the on-field jawing is ceaseless. Early in the week, Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason got it going early by warning the Steelers, "The Ravens are coming, so prepare yourself."

"I don't know if I'm supposed to be scared or laugh at that," Ward said.

The Steelers have won three of four against the Ravens and seven of eight in Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh is 0-2 in AFC championship games. This is the Steelers' 14th appearance in an AFC title game, tying the Raiders. They are 1-4 at home in AFC championship games over the last 29 years, losing to the Patriots at Heinz Field during the 2001 and 2004 seasons.

Both regular-season games between teams located only four hours apart were tight. The Steelers rallied for a 23-20 overtime win after trailing 13-3 at home Sept. 29, then won the rematch 13-9 in Baltimore last month.

In that Dec. 14 game, the Steelers' fifth comeback victory this season was decided by a disputed, last-minute touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, with referee Walt Coleman deciding upon review that Holmes inched the ball across the goal line.

"It's always going to come down to the last drive or the last play that ultimately defines the games," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said.

The couple of inches on that play may have meant the Steelers, not the Ravens, won the division title.

"Every blade of grass has to be defended on both sides," Holmes said. "The offense has to gain every inch they can."

Polamalu agreed, saying, "In other games, a 4- or 5-yard gain is nothing, like (when playing) the Indianapolis Colts. But a 5-yard gain in this game means so much."

Since the former Browns relocated to Baltimore in 1996, never has a Ravens-Steelers game meant this much.

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