Was there any doubt when the Ravens' schedule was released last April that the game at Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 was going to have huge significance?
Well, here it is, and it can't be much bigger.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh. Playoffs on the line. It will be cold. Wind will be blowing. And, as Coach John Harbaugh said to me yesterday: "Would you want it any other way?"
(Well, to be honest, I'd sleep a lot better if we had a two-game lead for a playoff spot. I'd enjoy Christmas just a little bit more. But, I didn't say that to Harbs. Didn't want to test his sense of humor even at this holiday time.)
We do have the opportunity to knock the defending Super Bowl champions, our deepest and most fierce rival, out of the playoffs. Talk about a holiday gift for Ravens fans. How sweet would that be? How much fun would that post-game locker room be? The charter flight back would remind all of us in the organization how good it feels to be part of a team.
And, who are the Steelers right now? Some would dismiss them as just another .500 team, nowhere close to the team that won the Super Bowl last February, and two weeks before that, ended our title dreams in the AFC Championship at the same Heinz Field where we will compete this Sunday.
The Steelers finished the 2008 regular season with a 12-4 record, which included a 23-20 overtime victory in Pittsburgh over the Ravens, who had Joe Flacco playing the first road game of his career; and the controversial victory (13-9) in Baltimore that featured the game-ending questionable touchdown pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger to WR Santonio Holmes. (Holmes did not get the ball to the end zone – that's my belief.) Along with those close calls, the '08 Steelers beat the Browns by four (10-6), Jacksonville by five (26-21) and escaped with a one-point (11-10) triumph over the Chargers.
That's five games a year ago that the Steelers won with the game hanging in the balance in the final minute of play. This season, Mike Tomlin's team has lost three games by three points each and two more in OT. Another set of five games settled in the final minute of each game – in 2009, the Steelers lost them. So, instead of being 12-2 right now, by the narrowest of margins – the same margins that went their way a year ago – Pittsburgh is 7-7.
I bring this up for two reasons: first, to show once again the small margin for error in the NFL – that the so-called good teams aren't really that much better than the so-called bad teams. Plus, you can be a Super Bowl-caliber team, but be in the middle of the pack because you lost the close games. Second, the Steelers are a "very good" 7-7 team.
Did I mention that Big Ben threw for a franchise-best 503 yards last Sunday in Pittsburgh's one-point (37-36) victory over the 9-5 Packers? Would Pittsburgh be any different if Ben didn't throw that unbelievable touchdown pass on the game's final play? Would we be any more confident if the Steelers were 6-8?
No. The Steelers are good and probably a team that could make another impressive playoff run if they earned a spot in the postseason. But, you know what – the Ravens are good, too. And, we'll be a dangerous team if we earn the playoffs.
Dec. 27, 2009. We all knew it would come to this.
I remember running into CBS-TV's Phil Simms, the former Super Bowl QB for the nasty Bill Parcells Giants teams, at halftime of last season's AFC Championship battle. He said to me: "I have never seen a more physical game in my life. Either one of you is going to have trouble recovering in time to win the Super Bowl."
Expect more of the same type of physicality Sunday. They pride themselves at being more physical and tougher than everyone they play. So do we. Let's get it on!
In Tough Times
A couple of times this season, Coach Harbaugh has talked to the team about Nehamiah, a leader from the Old Testament noted for building a city while battling those trying to tear it down. John has told the players and coaches that this great warrior had a spear in one hand to keep the enemy away, while he carried a shovel in his other hand to dig the foundation for future defense.
A couple of players and coaches have mentioned the head coach's stories to me. They have been moved by them. The message is obvious: as we nobly battle our current circumstance, we are building a foundation for future victory.
We don't completely ignore Christmas here – we had a full practice day yesterday on Christmas Eve and, while today's meeting and practice times have been adjusted, the team is working today to beat the Steelers. Our assistant coaches have the spirit of the holidays and came up with a very cool gift for Coach Harbaugh. They had a sculpture made of a gladiator-type warrior with a spear in one hand and shovel in the other. The statue sits on a piece of granite, a strong foundation. The coaches presented it to John Tuesday night. The head coach was touched. Way to go, guys!
All of us at the Ravens hope we "touched" you and your family in some way this holiday season. … And, we hope we can bring some more good cheer with a win over those Steelers on Sunday. Let's go beat Pittsburgh.
Merry Christmas and talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis , Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.