A sense of urgency is already built into the AFC Championship Game, but the Baltimore Ravens will be on a mission of a more personal nature when they take the field against the Oakland Raiders this afternoon at Network Associates Stadium.
This game, more than any other in the Ravens' brief history, is for Art Modell.
The once-embattled owner who braved a firestorm of criticism for moving his tradition-rich franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1995 is one step away from his first Super Bowl, and getting it for Modell has become a postseason priority for virtually every member of the Ravens organization.
"If there ever was a `Win one for the Gipper' situation, this is it," said Ravens minority owner Stephen J. Bisciotti. "I don't know of anyone in the organization who wants to win that game for Art any less than Art wants to win it. These people are focused on him."
That kind of sentiment is rare in the big-money world of professional sports, but Modell is one of the few remaining team owners for whom football is the family business and the football business is his family.
"No question that a big part of wanting to get to the Super Bowl is to do it for Art," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens vice president of player personnel. "Every other call I get is somebody wishing Art well. They'd like to see him have it."
For Modell, 75, today's game against the Raiders clearly is weighing on his mind - and his heart.
This is the Super Bowl, in a sense. The game determines whether Modell gets to football's greatest showcase for the first time in the 35-year history of the event. He has won an NFL championship (1964) but with a team that carried the earmarks of its previous ownership. And that was several years before the NFL linked up with the American Football League to spawn perhaps the most popular annual sporting event in the world.
"If we get by Oakland," Modell said Friday, "the game in Tampa will take on a life all its own. I've just been so disappointed in the past, I haven't given [the Super Bowl] a second thought."
The Browns-turned-Ravens are one of only nine existing NFL franchises that have never played in the Super Bowl. Modell came close but has only bitter disappointment to show for three AFC title appearances in the 1980s.
There was "The Drive" directed by Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway in 1986. There was "The Fumble" by Browns running back (and now Ravens executive) Earnest Byner in another near-miss against the Broncos in 1987. Three times in four years, the Browns faced Denver with the Super Bowl in the balance, and three times they fell short.
Now, again, the Super Bowl is so close he can almost touch it.
"The so-called experts thought the Tennessee game was the Super Bowl," he said. "Now, we have the same thing again. What happens after that remains to be seen. I just want to get past [today]."
The Ravens upset the Tennessee Titans, 24-10, to advance to today's AFC title game. They again are an underdog but have won nine in a row and are intent on delivering this one to Modell.
"It would be a great thing for him," said his son, David Modell, the club president. "I want it every year for him. I want it every year for me, too. But it would certainly be special for him ... in his 40th year [in football]."
Everyone realizes that. Everyone has bought into it.
"The compassion for Art - they realize what he has done for them and what this means to him - it's very heart-felt," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "It's very genuine."
Time enough to win
Modell doesn't want to hear about last chances, though this might be his last, best opportunity to win the Lombardi Trophy. Bisciotti has an option to buy the franchise after the 2003 season, but Modell feels that he has more than enough time to reach the Super Bowl with this strong, young team.
Depending on when Bisciotti exercises the option, "I have three to five years left," Modell said. "If I can't get there in that amount of time with this team, I don't deserve to get there."
He will get an argument on that point from just about everyone in the Ravens organization, from the executives to the coaches to the players and even to the office staff. The one consistent theme running through this postseason is that Modell "deserves" to have his Super Bowl.
"For a guy to be in the league as long as he has and have gone through what he has, he deserves to win," said veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe. "I don't know a whole lot of owners, but if there is anyone better than Art Modell, I haven't heard about him, or I haven't seen him.
"He's amazing. He's at every practice. It could be 100 degrees at training camp, 20 degrees and snowing, rainy. And every day he asks me how I am, how my family is doing. He shows such respect."
Stands by his people