Baltimore is not New York. It is not Boston or Charlotte or San Diego either. This is not a shortcoming, it is a point of civic pride. While football teams from those cities were expected to go deep in the National Football League playoffs, it is Baltimore's Ravens, not the Giants, Patriots, Panthers or Chargers, playing this Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl.
What's our name? How perfect that the Ravens have been inspired by a defiant Muhammad Ali's quest for respect four decades ago from an opponent who would refer to him only as Cassius Clay. How often is Baltimore unfairly defined by its shortcomings and not its successes? Drug addiction, murders, drop-outs, poverty, hunger - the problems are real, but they are not who we are.
If the Ravens' run to Tampa extends no farther than Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, this season will have served as a tremendous boost to our collective morale. In a metropolitan area where differences of race, religion and wealth sometimes divide us, the city's professional football team has brought us together.
How many people are wearing purple today? How many conversations are dominated by talk of the Ravens' stingy defense, the seemingly error-free performance of a rookie quarterback, or safety Ed Reed's near-superhuman skills? Maybe it's the underappreciated excellence of players such as Derrick Mason, who has played like a future Hall of Famer despite painful injuries?
This much is certain: It's a whole lot better than thinking about the economy, or war in the Middle East, or a mayor's indictment on criminal charges of perjury and theft.
We don't pretend that Sunday's game against the Steelers is anything but a game. This is football, not real life. It's entertainment, nothing more.
But to play as well as the Ravens have this season requires something more than talent or smart coaching or good fortune. As anyone who has been around the sport can tell you, it takes a burning desire, an unbending will to overcome adversity, a hunger for success.
What's our name? For Ali, his quest for acknowledgment was a matter of honor. A lot of Ravens players have this heightened sense of purpose, too. They are a fearless crew, these warriors in pads and cleats. They possess a kind of courage that Baltimoreans understand. Talk to any child in foster care, any recovering addict, anyone trying to make a better life for his or her family against long odds.
Asked for a prediction before a bout, another fearsome boxer, this one a character in a Rocky movie, had a one-word answer: pain. The Steelers, favored by oddsmakers to win the AFC Championship on Sunday, had better be prepared to endure their share; these Ravens are an unyielding crucible against which mere iron and alloy will be sorely tested.
What's our name? It is the Baltimore Ravens.