PITTSBURGH - A 5-year-old rivalry between two AFC heavyweights has reached its main event.
In what has evolved into the league's nastiest feud, the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will settle a season-long score in today's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field. The much-anticipated postseason clash has spiced up an already bitter series that has involved warnings, supposed bounties and "plexiglas."
"It's amazing how the personality of a series can change based on the stakes," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The last couple of years when Pittsburgh hasn't been in the playoff picture, they had been respectful, hard-fought games. Now, all of a sudden, there's a lot of stakes and it's gotten personal."
This showdown will feature the league's top two defenses, the two hottest running games and two AFC Central teams that thrive on the bad blood between them.
"This is a rivalry between Baltimore and us that has been built over time, built because of success, built on what's at stake," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "There's a respect. But there's a dislike that exists. There's no mistake about that, too."
The animosity has simmered over the past 2 1/2 months.
The Ravens (11-6) handed the Steelers their only loss in the inaugural season at Heinz on Nov. 4, instilling confidence that they can do it again. Pittsburgh (13-3) paid back the sentiment by clinching a division title with a victory on Dec. 16, celebrating on the Ravens' home field.
The winner of today's tiebreaker will advance to next Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, who ousted the Oakland Raiders last night, 16-13, in overtime. While it's three weeks before a team will be crowned, the defending champion Ravens have raised the bar for today's grudge match with Pittsburgh.
"The team that wins this game here will win the Super Bowl," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said.
The battle lines were drawn last Sunday, about 15 minutes after the Ravens' wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins.
"Everybody says they're the best team," Ravens outside linebacker Jamie Sharper said. "We'll see. If `The Bus' [Jerome Bettis] is smart, he won't play."
Bettis, the Steelers' star running back who has missed the past five games with groin and hip injuries, snapped back by saying, "I don't think he's qualified to make that assessment. That's the way I look at it. Well, if you look at the last couple of games, I don't know if he should suit up. He's been put on his back by some wide receivers on our team. So, I mean, he might want to be careful himself."
While the trash-talking continued in Pittsburgh, the Ravens surprisingly bit their tongue. Billick reminded his players what happened a month ago, when the Ravens talked all during Pittsburgh week and didn't back up their words for the first time in two years.
Even Sharpe, who questioned the toughness of Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress by nicknaming him "Plexiglas," took the politically correct approach - for now.
"Come Sunday, there will be very little trash-talking and very little hand-shaking involved," Sharpe said. "Guys know what's at stake. I'm not saying anything now, but I'll be talking later."
The fiercest one-on-one battle likely will be waged between Ravens safety Rod Woodson and Steelers receiver Hines Ward.
In the first meeting in November, Ward delivered a hard block that apparently caused Woodson's nose to bleed. After the game, Woodson found Ward on the field and, according to Ward, told him, "I'll get you back the next time."
When the teams played again a month later, Ward said he heard through the grapevine that there was a bounty out on himself and Burress. According to Ward, a Ravens player would be rewarded if he could knock out either one on a crossing route.
"That's ridiculous," Billick said. "They are competitive guys who battle. But there was no bounty out or anything like that."
Said Woodson: "Hines plays until the whistle is blown. I got tired of talking to the guy. I'm not going to even bother with the guy. We'll probably hit heads a couple of times."
The intensity of today's game is only matched by eerie history.
It was only a year and two weeks ago that the Ravens upset the top-seeded, AFC Central champion Tennessee Titans on the road in the divisional playoffs. In an exact replay of their series with Pittsburgh this season, the Ravens were the first visiting team to win at Tennessee's Adelphia Coliseum, prevailing after a missed field-goal attempt.
Last Sunday, the Ravens hammered out a 20-3 victory over Miami in the opening round. A year ago, the Ravens delivered a 21-3 win over the Denver Broncos in the first round of the playoffs.
Last year, the Titans were six-point favorites against the Ravens in the divisional playoff game. Today, the Steelers are six-point favorites.
"It has a certain familiarity to it, so that builds confidence," Billick said. "It's Stephen Kingish how similar the circumstances are for us across the board. It's a little freaky."