PITTSBURGH — The Ravens head into Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers carrying a simmering animosity toward their biggest rival and a growing sense of urgency spurred by their leader.
When the Ravens opened the playoffs last weekend, linebacker Ray Lewis wore his Super Bowl ring for the first time since the team won the championship a decade ago. Players in the locker room quickly came to look at it, which is exactly what Lewis wanted — focus everyone's attention on the ultimate goal.
For once, Lewis delivered a pointed message without having to say a word.
"The time is right now," Lewis told reporters. "I want to give them a sense of what I felt before. I want to do it again with this team."
Round 3 of this grudge match between the fifth-seeded Ravens (13-4) and the No. 2 Steelers (12-4) features higher stakes than at any point this season.
The Ravens are one win away from advancing to the AFC championship game against the winner of Sunday's New England- New York Jets game. They are one loss from uncertainty.
Age, free agency and a potential lockout are as threatening to the Ravens as the Steelers pass rushers. For these reasons, Lewis has impressed upon his teammates that they can't afford to squander chances in the playoffs like they did the past two seasons.
"We've been to the AFC championship, we've been to the divisional round, we've done everything we're supposed to do," Lewis said. "What's next for us? What's next is finish."
Lewis is one of many veterans on the Ravens who don't know how many more shots they'll have to reach the Super Bowl. The Ravens have 17 players who are 30 or older, which represents almost one-third of their roster.
"The only way teams that have a mix of veterans and younger guys advance is the younger guys understand what's on a veteran's mind and what he is playing for," wide receiver Derrick Mason said.
The oldest Raven at 36 years old, Mason played in his only Super Bowl 11 years ago with the Tennessee Titans. It was the one in which Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped one yard short of scoring the game-tying touchdown against the St. Louis Rams.
A career without another Super Bowl appearance would be "heartbreaking," Mason said.
"That's the only thing that has eluded me over my 14-year career is a Super Bowl ring," he said. "Some guys might think that I have all of these catches and yards and I can just leave. But for me, I came into this game to win. As I started getting a little older, my mindset changed — I have to win a Super Bowl now. Anything less than that is a failure."
Starting center Matt Birk, 34, went to the NFC championship in two of his first three seasons when he came into the league with the Minnesota Vikings. But Birk won one more playoff game over the next eight years before joining the Ravens in 2009.
The Ravens are the only NFL team to win a playoff game the past three seasons, something Birk knows shouldn't be taken for granted.
"You can definitely shed some perspective on the situation," Birk said, "and let the younger guys know that this is not the norm."
Once the season is over, the Ravens' next challenge is keeping the team together.
Nearly half of the Ravens' current 53-man roster are potential free agents, including eight starters (cornerback Chris Carr, guard Chris Chester, safety Dawan Landry, linebacker Jameel McClain, fullback Le'Ron McClain, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Josh Wilson, offensive tackle Marshal Yanda) and two specialists (kicker Billy Cundiff and punter Sam Koch).
It's unknown how many players the Ravens will be able to bring back, which adds more pressure on the team to win now.
"I know it's in the back of people's head what the locker room will look like next year," Le'Ron McClain said. "It probably will be totally different."
Another question mark is the labor situation between the league and the players' union. Many players around the NFL are bracing for the owners to lock them out on March 4 if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached.
There's no telling when the next game will be once a team is eliminated from the playoffs.
"That's way in the back of my mind," tight end Todd Heap said. "The forefront is what we're going to accomplish right now. The urgency comes from the feeling that we've been building this thing and trying to get to this point. We feel like all the pieces are in place to accomplish what we've set out to do."
Lewis' message to his teammates began last month on the night before the Ravens played the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. He gave an inspirational speech about dedication and sacrifice.
"When New Orleans was coming here, they are still defending champs until somebody else touches that confetti," Lewis said. "That's what I tried to get my young guys to clue in on. We watched them win a Super Bowl against the Colts last year. Do you want to feel that? Because I do — again."
The Ravens realize their future is now.
"You just never know how many playoffs you're even going to make in the course of your career and have a shot at it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The young guys are feeding off the veteran guys' urgency a little bit and understanding how valuable these opportunities really are. Life is short, and careers are even shorter."