Ravens won't be sneaking up this time

ON THE RAVENS

December 23, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

Pittsburgh's Heinz Field has been a tough place for the Ravens to win lately, and it will be even tougher tomorrow.

The Steelers are 18-5 at home during the past three years, and two of those losses came last season on the last possession of both games. The Ravens (11-3) have had even less success, losing four straight regular-season games and one playoff contest at Heinz Field since January 2002. It's bad enough that the Steelers (7-7) have some of the most obnoxious fans in the league, and those goofy, loud-yellow Terrible Towels can be irritating.

But the Steelers have some other things working in their favor as well. They'll be pumped because the Ravens embarrassed them in Baltimore four weeks ago in a 27-0 whipping that was one of the most thorough in team history. Pittsburgh also still has a glimmer of hope for a postseason berth, and this could be the last game at Heinz Field for longtime Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

And, of course, there is the usual hatred shared by the two rivals.

"Kansas City never lost in how long at home during December in their stadium?" Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "It doesn't matter where we play, we've just got to show up and play football. How desperate they are and what we are fighting for [on] the same token - which is trying to find some way to secure some type of home-field advantage - it's what we want. I don't think that they have anything more to fight for than we do."

Oh, yes they do.

It's personal. It became personal on Nov. 26 when the Ravens sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nine times, tying a team record. The Ravens held the Steelers to 172 yards of total offense, and had a 17-0 lead at halftime. The only other complete beat-down administered by the Ravens in the team's brief 11-year history was its 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in the January 2001 Super Bowl.

"We don't go into any game expecting to lose," said Cowher, in his 15th season with Pittsburgh. "Certainly, they handled us very well, and we would like to think that's not something we have happen to us on a regular basis.`

The whipping goes against everything the Steelers stand for. Cowher is the ultimate blue-collar coach with the famous scowl and the protruding jaw. The team's black-and-gold color scheme matches the city's gritty image, and this is a franchise that has prided itself on having a physical defense and a run-oriented, knock-you-off-the-ball offense.

But the last time the Steelers played in Baltimore, the Ravens shoved all of that in their faces. So, you think Cowher hasn't been cussing, screaming and spitting this week?

"I give a lot of credit to them the last time we played them," Cow- her said. "The good thing about it is that we've got a chance to redeem ourselves this weekend."

Cowher has become just as big as tomorrow's game. There is speculation that he might not coach in Pittsburgh next season. According to several published reports, Cowher didn't get the contract extension he wanted from the club at the beginning of the season. There have been rumors that Cowher might retire, or take another head coaching position in the NFL or at the college level.

There could be a "win one for the Gipper" attitude that prevails among the Steelers, and that sentiment might add to the buzz of the expected sellout crowd.

"It will be [decided] after the season," Cowher said of his decision to continue coaching. "We'll just leave it at that. I'm not ready to get into too much. I've talked already enough about that stuff."

There might be more than one game left for Cowher after tomorrow. Mathematically, the Steelers have a shot at the playoffs. They've won five of their past six games and seem to have rediscovered their old offensive formula for success, the one in which they run about 30 to 40 times a game, and pass about 20 to 25 times.

But for the Steelers to get in, other teams in front of them have to lose. Pittsburgh's chances of success increased significantly this week because the Ravens might be without Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (hyperextended toe). Ogden has a habit of making Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl outside linebacker Joey Porter disappear from games.

Second-year tackle Adam Terry might have to play for Ogden. Terry will be respectable because he has good mechanics, but he is also timid. Porter is just downright nasty and ornery. If he gets a chance to put quarterback Steve McNair out of the game, he will, and it might mean goodbye to McNair - and the Ravens' chances of going deep into the playoffs.

The Ravens, though, are prepared to meet the challenge. Despite having a better record and beating Pittsburgh so decisively earlier this season, the oddsmakers have made the Steelers three-point favorites. Maybe it's because of the Ravens' lack of success at Heinz Field during the past five years.

"It doesn't matter. It is what it is," McAlister said of being the underdog. "They are going to make the odds; we're going to go out and show them Sunday. If they want to sit there and overlook us, overlook us. I'm pretty sure Pittsburgh is not sitting back at their home right now, at their facility, saying: `Don't worry about the Ravens, we're supposed to beat them.' ... The people that we go up against know that it's not going to be easy playing the Ravens."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at baltimoresun. com/ravenscentral

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