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Eisenberg: Ravens Still Look Up To Steelers In One Way


When Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh does the pregame meet-and-greet with Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, they likely will congratulate each other, as both of their teams have qualified for the playoffs.

You will recall both also qualified a year ago along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving the AFC North half of the conference's six-team playoff field, an impressive feat. The odds of that happening again this season were slim, simply because it so rarely occurs. At least one of the teams and maybe even two figured to fall by the wayside.

The Steelers, it turns out, were the only ones lacking playoff mettle in 2012.

The somewhat surprising development is being greeted with wicked grins in Baltimore, where fans root against rivals such as the Steelers, New York Yankees and Duke almost as feverishly as they root for their own teams. I suspect the feeling is mutual in Cincinnati. The Steelers have broken the hearts of their AFC North mates so regularly for so long that few would blame Harbaugh and Lewis if they danced a jig and sang "Ding, dong, the witch is dead" when they shake hands before Sunday's kickoff.

It was just two years ago that Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti glumly anointed the Steelers as the "gold standard" of the division after a season in which Pittsburgh registered three wins over Baltimore, including a playoff heartbreaker, and won its third AFC title in six seasons.

But a lot has changed since then. One could argue that your father's AFC North no longer exists.

The Ravens have won the division title for two straight years and also earned five straight trips to the playoffs, the NFL's longest active streak. The Bengals have quietly made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, once as the division winner. The Steelers can't boast of a better recent regular season record than either, with one division title and two trips to the playoffs since 2009.

Times are indeed a-changing.

But the ghost of Pittsburgh's towering past will continue to haunt the Ravens and Bengals after they finish with each other Sunday and move on to the postseason. Although they have drawn even with the Steelers and perhaps even surpassed them when it comes to regular season football, the playoffs are another story.

The Steelers remain the division's clear-cut "gold standard" in that realm, repeatedly exhibiting the ability to take their playoff ticket and use it to make deep runs and even go all the way. They've piled up three AFC titles and two Super Bowl victories since 2005, never going more than four years without playing in the NFL's ultimate game.

The Ravens and Bengals can't begin to match that recent record of postseason success, although the Ravens haven't fared badly, twice making it as far as the AFC title game, in 2008 (losing to Pittsburgh) and 2011.

But the Ravens haven't been to the Super Bowl since they won it in 2000, and the Bengals haven't been since 1988. In fact, the Bengals haven't won a playoff game, period, since 1990 – a 22-year drought.

The Ravens don't talk much about the fact that they're still looking up to their bitter rivals in this one key respect despite having become the Steelers' equals on the field.

But make no mistake, they're well aware of what they need to do to really, truly surpass the Steelers and become the divisional standard bearer.

"We are obviously still trying to do what they've done, and they've won multiple Super Bowls," Ravens running back Ray Rice said in late November before the teams played in Baltimore.

That's why, come to think of it, Harbaugh and Lewis probably won't dance that jig when they shake hands before Sunday's kickoff, because while their teams may have combined to vanquish the Steelers this year, the Steelers are still exacting a form of revenge from the sidelines, taunting their rivals with their shiny postseason record, their history of coming through when it matters most.

It's a brutally tough act for either the Ravens or Bengals to try to replicate.

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