Ravens players bring own fire to heated matchup

January 13, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

You're the Baltimore sports fan. You've had quite a week. Your football team plays a big game today, and you were the center of attention during the buildup. Your story was all over the papers and TV and talk shows.

It's your memories that have transformed this AFC playoff game between the Ravens and Indianapolis Colts into such grand theater. It's your angst that provides the context that has turned this into your city's most anticipated sports event since Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995.

You want this one badly, about as badly as you could want a game. You wore purple yesterday. You'll wear it again today. You'll make all sorts of noise and hoo-hah.

But now that the game is here, you aren't the story anymore.

The players are the story, and please take this the right way, but they won't be thinking much about you today. They won't burn to beat the Colts just because it would exact some measure of revenge for the late Robert Irsay's decision to yank the franchise out of here a generation ago.

The players will be motivated by different wellsprings of emotion - theirs more than yours.

Oh, when the game starts and they feel the passion emanating from the stands, they'll appreciate the support. If they're smart, they'll tap into it and make their inner fire even hotter.

But they shouldn't need much help with that inner fire today. It should be already hot even without any odious Irsay memories.

Asked during the past week to identify what will motivate them today, various Ravens gave responses that were many, varied and just as legitimate as yours. Getting to the AFC title game. Proving themselves to skeptics. Irsay's name seldom came up.

The Ravens want to win just as badly as you - wait, they want to win more than you, but for their own reasons. You, as a fan, might be on their list, but you're not at the top.

What is? Well, the players who have never won a Super Bowl want to win one. The players who were here six years ago want to win another. The younger guys want to strut. The older guys know these opportunities are rare.

The defense wants to prove it rates with the best ever. The offense, well, let's focus on quarterback Steve McNair, a guy who, until June 2006, had spent his whole NFL career elsewhere.

"Do you understand what all this Colts fuss is about?" he was asked during a brief news conference earlier this week.

"I can put two and two together," McNair said with a smile.

It's not his fight. So what is?

As McNair continued, the conversation turned to his Super Bowl experience, when his Tennessee Titans lost by a touchdown to St. Louis in January 2000 and ended the game on the Rams' 1-yard-line.

"I lost the Super Bowl by 1 yard. I'd rather lose by 50 points," McNair declared, obviously rekindling bitter memories.

Of all the people at the stadium today, he is probably the least interested in what happened 23 years ago. But that doesn't mean he isn't burning to win, get back to the Super Bowl and finish a yard to the good this time.

They all have their own motivations that don't involve the Colts.

Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' fourth-year linebacker, was born 17 months before Irsay moved the horseshoes, so it's not his fight, either. What is?

"When you're in this position, you have to cherish the moment and play every game like it's your last because you never know when you'll be in this situation again," Suggs said. "It's hard to get here. A lot of things have to bounce the right way."

He repeated himself: "You have to cherish the moment."

Like anyone in any business, Suggs sees the game as an opportunity to get closer to the pinnacle of his profession, the Super Bowl. That, for most of the Ravens, is all the motivation they need.

This is why they lifted weights in the offseason. This is why they went through two-a-days in August. This is why they got amped up for the Pittsburgh Steelers and obliterated them twice.

Their goal all along was to make the playoffs, and then advance to the Super Bowl. They're close. They've played well and some breaks have gone their way. Now, the Colts, of all teams, are in their path.

As a Baltimore sports fan, your reasons for getting sky-high for the occasion are real and genuine and certain to turn the stadium into an ear-shattering pit. But the Ravens don't need additional incentive today. They should already have all the motivation they need.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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