Sure, NFL was here, but now it's back

October 05, 1997|By John Eisenberg

The National Football League returns to Baltimore today when the Ravens play the Steelers at Memorial Stadium.

That might sound weird considering that the Ravens already are well into their second season here, and that almost 23 months have passed since Art Modell first announced his controversial move from Cleveland.

OK, so the NFL actually returned quite awhile ago -- but that was in body only, not in spirit.

The real essence of the pro game was missing last season during a glazed-over honeymoon in which a roster of transplanted Clevelanders struggled to a 4-12 finish and fans were happy just to have a team again after 12 years of silent Sundays.

Today's game marks another new beginning of sorts with the return, at last, of many of the elements that the fans most missed between the departure of the Colts and arrival of the Ravens.

It's the first big home game for the Ravens -- the first big game, period -- coming after a successful September topped off by a road trip in which they won two of three games.

Big things are at stake in the AFC Central standings, where the Ravens are in second place, a half-game ahead of the Steelers.

And the Steelers, the class of the division for much of the '90s, will bring thousands of fans from home to jack up the emotional pitch inside the stadium.

Big game, big crowd, big opponent, big stakes -- pro football is, indeed, back at last.

"This is a pivotal game," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "During the course of the season, you're going to run into three or four pivotal games. This is another one. It's a big ballgame, extremely important."

To top it all off, the Ravens have a shot at winning.

The Steelers are favored, no surprise given their accomplishments in recent seasons, but today's matchups favor the Ravens in many ways.

A big win in a big game -- now that would really mark the return of the NFL.

It could happen, for several reasons.

The Steelers' pass defense is among the worst in the league, meaning the pass-happy Ravens should be able to move the ball and score.

Stopping the run is what the Steelers' defense does best, but how much is that going to matter against a Ravens offense that treats the running game as little more than an accessory?

Bam Morris' return is supposed to matter, but the Ravens' real advantage today lies in the matchup between their receivers, Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, and the Steelers vulnerable cornerbacks, Donnell Woolford and Randy Fuller.

"We had success against them last year," said quarterback Vinny Testaverde, referring to the Ravens' December victory over the Steelers at Memorial Stadium, "and I think we can do it again."

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers and quarterback Kordell Stewart are ranked last in the league in passing offense, meaning they're less likely to take advantage of the glaring weaknesses the Ravens have shown in their secondary.

Stewart's passing is improving every week after a terrible start, but the Steelers still move the ball best on the ground behind their powerful offensive line and back Jerome Bettis.

The Ravens' ability to stop Bettis is the key to the game, but the Ravens have stopped the run fairly well so far -- better than all but six of the league's 29 other teams, in fact.

In all, it's a set of circumstances that suggests the Ravens have a shot, at the very least.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons why the Steelers are favored, even though they're on the road against a team with a better record.

They're the Steelers, first of all, a far more successful team than the Browns/Ravens.

When in doubt, take the team that knows how to win, as the Steelers surely do.

There's also the injured status of defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, the Ravens' run-stop specialist. The less he plays on his sore ankle, the better the Steelers' chances.

Don't forget, either, that Testaverde had never beaten the Steelers in a game he started and finished -- until last year. That's hardly a track record.

These franchises had one of the NFL's best regional rivalries, of course, before Modell moved to Baltimore; it was the Orioles and Yankees in cleats. Steelers fans were among the most vocal protesting the Browns' departure, which was their loss, too.

Things aren't quite as intense now that the Ravens are in Baltimore.

The Steelers are still the team to beat in the AFC Central, but Memorial Stadium fans would rather see their team beat the Redskins and Colts.

The members of the Ravens' front office still want to beat the Steelers most of all, as do the ex-Browns and a few ex-Steelers.

"This has been a deep rivalry during my years in the NFL, and it's going to remain that way," said Ravens tight end Eric Green, who used to play in Pittsburgh.

Today's game is as big as ever, but for different reasons.

As the first big game for the Ravens, it marks the return of what was missing around here for so long:

Pro football with soul, passion and meaning.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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