Two days from the Ravens cornerbacks' next go-around with Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress, Chris McAlister is giving him the silent treatment while Gary Baxter is wanting to reintroduce himself.
Whatever the approach, the Ravens' regular-season finale likely hinges on whether their secondary can shut down Burress, or perhaps, shut him up. Burress has become the Steelers' biggest - and loudest - offensive weapon against the Ravens ever since they nicknamed him "Plexiglas" last season.
In the past four meetings with the Ravens, he has been making noise on and off the field, catching 22 passes for 359 yards and five touchdowns to outshine Pro Bowl teammate Hines Ward. After scoring two touchdowns in one half against the Ravens two months ago, he called McAlister "cocky" and rated Baxter as "terrible."
Mobbed by cameras and reporters yesterday, McAlister was combative when asked repeatedly about his personal battle with Burress.
"I don't see it as that," McAlister said. "It's not me and him. It's a team thing. You might want to ask me a different question."
Although McAlister downplayed the significance, his matchup with Burress has factored heavily in recent games. McAlister has yet to handle Burress over the past two seasons and has surrendered touchdowns of 20 and 25 yards to him in the past two regular-season games.
Even Ravens teammate John Jones got into the act yesterday, grabbing a microphone to ask McAlister, "Is Plaxico going to personally wup your butt this game?"
McAlister said, "I got no comment, buddy. I got nothing to say to [Burress]."
Baxter got involved in this war of words in October, when he referred to Burress as "just another receiver." Told after the game about the comments, Burress asked, "Who is Gary Baxter?"
Baxter said he'll go out of his way to acquaint himself with Burress this time.
"Whenever we match up against each other, I guarantee you he's going to know who Gary Baxter is," Baxter said. "This game is going to be a little more physical than the last one."
The difficulty is when Baxter tries to be more physical and loses poise.
"I do take it personal, but I'm going to separate the line," said Baxter, who is ending his first season at cornerback. "I've got to calm down. When I get wired up, I tend to lose focus. I want to get into a grudge match with him, but that's not what this game is about."
Burress received good news yesterday, when Steelers coach Bill Cowher said quarterback Tommy Maddox (ankle injury) will likely be upgraded from questionable to probable today. Since Maddox took over as starter three months ago, Burress has found his niche in the Pittsburgh offense.
Ravens coach Brian Billick compared Burress' emergence to that of Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss in 1998.
"Randy was just that last little piece to Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Robert Smith for us to explode into a 15-1, highest-scoring team in the history of the league," said Billick, the offensive coordinator in Minnesota that season. "Plaxico brings to them just the balance they need to make that a very good group."
Comparatively, McAlister could be accused of being off-balance this month.
The four-year veteran ripped off the helmet of New Orleans Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth three weeks ago and then got called for a late hit in the Cleveland Browns' game-winning drive last Sunday. The NFL fined him $5,000 for the helmet incident and hit him with another fine yesterday for taunting Cleveland tight end Mark Campbell.
"Chris comes to the principal's office about once every two weeks and we talk," Billick said. "That's the only real way to handle it and try to help Chris grow and understand the responsibilities to himself and this organization. And he does ... but he's still learning."
These recent problems won't change McAlister's future with the Ravens.
McAlister, a first-round draft pick in 1999, will be playing his final game under his existing contract. The Ravens, though, refuse to lose him to another team this off-season. They will either re-sign him to a new long-term contract, or they will slap the franchise tag on him.
A franchise player gets a one-year offer from the team equal to the average salary of the five highest-paid players at his position. It virtually locks him into returning since no team is expected to match the offer and give the Ravens two first-round draft picks as compensation.
"I'm going to be in the purple and black next year," McAlister said. "I know that."
Still, McAlister's focus is on the present, where the Ravens' pass defense has to figure a way to silence Burress.
"It's going to be a great matchup," McAlister said. "It always has been and always will be. It's just a matter of whoever executes the best on game day is going to win."