PITTSBURGH - The Baltimore Ravens head into today's divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers carrying a simmering animosity toward their biggest rival and a growing sense of urgency spurred by their leader.
When the Ravens opened the playoffs last weekend, linebacker Ray Lewis wore his Super Bowl ring for the first time since the team won the championship a decade ago. Players in the locker room quickly came to look at it, which is exactly what Lewis wanted – focus everyone’s attention on the ultimate goal.
For once, Lewis delivered a pointed message without having to say a word.
“The time is right now,” Lewis told reporters. “I want to give them a sense of what I felt before. I want to do it again with this team.”
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Round 3 of this grudge match between the fifth-seeded Ravens (13-4) and the No. 2 Steelers (12-4) features higher stakes than at any point this season.
The Ravens are one win away from advancing to the AFC championship game against the winner of Sunday’s New England-New York Jets game. They are one loss from uncertainty.
Age, free agency and a potential lockout are as threatening to the Ravens as the Steelers’ pass rushers. For these reasons, Lewis has impressed upon his teammates that they can’t afford to squander chances in the playoffs like they did the past two seasons.
“We’ve been to the AFC championship, we’ve been to the divisional round, we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do,” Lewis said. “What’s next for us? What’s next is finish.”
Lewis is one of many veterans on the Ravens who don’t know how many more shots they’ll have to reach the Super Bowl. The Ravens have 17 players who are 30 or older, which represents almost one-third of their roster.
“The only way teams that have a mix of veterans and younger guys advance is the younger guys understand what’s on a veteran’s mind and what he is playing for,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said.
The oldest Raven at 36 years old, Mason played in his only Super Bowl 11 years ago with the Tennessee Titans. It was the one in which Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped 1 yard short of scoring the tying touchdown against the St. Louis Rams.
A career without another Super Bowl appearance would be “heartbreaking,” Mason said.
“That’s the only thing that has eluded me over my 14-year career is a Super Bowl ring,” he said. “Some guys might think that I have all of these catches and yards and I can just leave. But for me, I came into this game to win. As I started getting a little older, my mind-set changed – I have to win a Super Bowl now. Anything less than that is a failure.”
Starting center Matt Birk, 34, went to the NFC championship in two of his first three seasons when he came into the league with the Minnesota Vikings. But Birk won just one more playoff game over the next eight years before joining the Ravens in 2009.
The Ravens are the only NFL team to win a playoff game in each of the past three seasons, something Birk knows shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“You can definitely shed some perspective on the situation,” Birk said, “and let the younger guys know that this is not the norm.”
Once the season is over, the Ravens’ next challenge is keeping the team together.
Nearly half of the Ravens’ current 53-man roster are potential free agents, including eight starters (cornerback Chris Carr, guard Chris Chester, safety Dawan Landry, linebacker Jameel McClain, fullback Le’Ron McClain, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Josh Wilson, offensive tackle Marshal Yanda) and two specialists (kicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch).
It’s unknown how many players the Ravens will be able to bring back, which adds more pressure to win now.
“I know it’s in the back of people’s head what the locker room will look like next year,” Le’Ron McClain said. “It probably will be totally different.”
Another question mark is the labor situation between the league and the players’ union. Many players around the NFL are bracing for the owners to lock them out on March 4 if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t reached.
There’s no telling when the next game will be once a team is eliminated from the playoffs.
“That’s way in the back of my mind,” tight end Todd Heap said. “The forefront is what we’re going to accomplish right now. The urgency comes from the feeling that we’ve been building this thing and trying to get to this point. We feel like all the pieces are in place to accomplish what we’ve set out to do.”
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
When: 1:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 950-AM
Weather: Snowy, 10-plus mph winds, mid-20s.
Regular season: Baltimore 12-4, Pittsburgh 12-4.
Head-to-head: Pittsburgh is 20-12 vs. Ravens.
Point spread/over-under: Pittsburgh -3. Total is 37.
Fun prop line: The odds of the first score of the game being a safety is 100-1.
About the Ravens: QB Joe Flacco is making his seventh career postseason start. All have been on the road. Flacco, Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar are the only quarterbacks to appear in the playoffs each of their first three seasons ... Defense has allowed 24 points over the last three games ... Both teams have a remarkable streak of 14 postseason games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
About the Steelers: Led the NFL in rushing defense. In the two games earlier this season, Baltimore had 70 and 43 yards ... Since 2006, LB LaMarr Woodley has an NFL-best eight postseason sacks.
Philadelphia Daily News BALL SECURITY
In the Ravens’ three playoff losses they lost the turnover battle decisively, by three each time. In the championship game loss after the 2008 season, Joe Flacco threw three interceptions, was sacked three times and had a passer rating of 18.2. Flacco has come a long way since then, but if he is rushed, if he is hit and if he is sacked, the turnovers will come. In a game between two very even teams, turnovers are probably the single biggest factor. Ray Rice hasn’t fumbled all year, and this season, the Ravens’ had a franchise-low 20 turnovers.
THE RIGHT CALL
Coach John Harbaugh had the worst of his three NFL seasons challenging on-field calls this year. In nine challenges, he got only one call reversed. That was brutal. The process must be refined in the postseason, where he had three reversals in five challenges in his first two seasons. Clock management hasn’t always been a strength under Harbaugh, but it needs to be now. Bad clock management – or poor use of challenges – can end the season.
FIND BOLDIN EARLY
The Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin for a reason, even if it didn’t seem that way at times when he disappeared from the offense. He is made for the playoffs, made for the Steelers rivalry, made for the red zone. Big, strong, sure-handed and devastating in the middle, Boldin gives the Ravens an advantage they haven’t had in the postseason. No matter how reluctant Cam Cameron is to call pass plays over the middle, no matter how comfortable Flacco feels with Derrick Mason, the Ravens have to get the ball to Boldin early and open up the offense.
IN THE MIDDLE
Because Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is more dangerous outside the pocket, the Ravens have to be careful how they attack him in the pass rush. Haloti Ngata should win the battle with first-year center Maurkice Pouncey. Terrell Suggs should win the battle against left tackle Jonathan Scott most of the time. So that means the Ravens have to bring pressure from the left side to cut off Roethlisberger’s escape routes. Whether that’s corner blitzes or with linebacker Jarret Johnson coming free, it needs to be persistent.
The Ravens gave up nine TD drives of 90 or more yards this season. Imagine how many more touchdowns the opposition would have scored if the Ravens’ kicking game didn’t provide such excellent field position all year? The Ravens can’t afford to give Pittsburgh a short field – or the ball at their own 9-yard line like they did Dec. 5. Billy Cundiff has been superb with his 40 touchbacks, and Sam Koch terrific with his 39 punts inside the 20. The weather will be raw and ugly in Pittsburgh and the kicking will be harder. But it is no less important this week.