Ravens, Steelers resume brutal grudge match

PITTSBURGH – The defining images of the Baltimore Ravens' blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers are clenched fists, bounties, death threats, broken bones, concussions and a broken nose stuffed with bloody wads of cotton. It's a primal grudge match where vicious hits evoke the most vivid memories, not touchdowns and interceptions

As the Ravens (13-4) prepare to square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) today in an AFC divisional playoff game today at Heinz Field, the nastiness hasn't subsided. "It's a lot of hate there on the field," Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison said. "On the field, anything that is legal in between the white lines is all game. I hate losing to them. I hate losing to anybody, but to them it's a lot worse." The Steelers' unofficial theme song by Styx is a fitting one, especially when these two heavyweights trade haymakers. It's "Renegade."

Whether it's Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having his broken nose with an open-handed swat from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, middle linebacker Ray Lewis shattering running back Rashard Mendenhall's clavicle, Ravens running back Willis McGahee being knocked unconscious by safety Ryan Clark during the AFC championship game two seasons ago or Bart Scott threatening to kill Hines Ward after being decleated by the hard-nosed wide receiver, this game rarely disappoints the football purists who love to watch violent collisions. During the last meeting, Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain delivered a crushing blow to the head of tight end Heath Miller that gave him a major concussion. It was an expensive hit, costing McClain a $40,000 fine.

"To me, it's definitely the best rivalry in sports," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "And when it comes to football, it's the most physical game of the year. It's going to be a physical gang fight, just like the first two games were. This is definitely Armageddon." Well, it's not quite that serious even if it does feel that way when the Steelers' stadium shakes like it's been struck by lightning and the Terrible Towels are waving as the Iron City beer flows in the stands. "The biblical description of Armageddon is the end of the world," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm hopeful that it doesn't take place on Saturday. I think we're all looking forward to the sun coming up on Sunday morning and I'm pretty sure it will.

"I think he's just saying that it's obviously going to be a tight football game and you are right. There's always so much at stake and I think that the ramifications of this last game were huge for us. Having to come to Pittsburgh for this game, it's just going to be huge for us." So, knuckle up, put up your dukes and buckle your chin strap. "It's going to be a bloodbath," offensive guard Ben Grubbs said. "It's going to be a train wreck." The Ravens have never defeated the Steelers in the postseason, losing two years ago in the AFC title game and in the divisional round in nine years ago. The teams split the season series this year, but Roethlisberger wasn't a part of the first game in Pittsburgh and outdueled Joe Flacco during a 13-10 win in Baltimore on Dec. 5. Dating back to 2003, the teams have each scored 302 points against each other. It's thatclose.

Now, here comes Round III. Roethlisberger is 8-2 all-time against the Ravens, winning six consecutive games against the Steelers' chief AFC North rival. Flacco has won just two of his seven starts against the Steelers, but has yet to defeat them when Roethlisberger's quarterbacking the Steelers. "I think he's beaten us every time he's been under center," Suggs said. "That's definitely my bigger problem." The winner of this game will advance to the AFC championship game to play the victor of Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Seeded fifth and owning an impressive 30-7 shellacking of a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round, the Ravens have ambitions on going to Dallas for the Super Bowl. Having won five consecutive games since losing Pittsburgh in Baltimore, the Ravens are looking to ride the momentum to propel themselves past the second-seeded Steelers.

"You can argue Atlanta and New England, but anyone could argue the winner of this game will most likely go on to win the Super Bowl," Suggs said. Suggs has cast himself as the villain of the series all week. He even wore a T-shirt where a Raven bird literally flipped the Steelers the bird. "It's about what is on the line," Suggs said. "They call it Armageddon as the fight between good and evil. I am a big Star Wars fan and the emperor said, 'Evil is only a point of view.' I guess it is from whose point of view it's coming from." What makes the rivalry so fierce between these blue-collar teams from old Rust Belt cities? They're practically mirror images of each other. Both teams believe in the foundations of smash-mouth, fundamental football: old-fashioned blocking and tackling. "We're very similar teams," offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. "They're physical as hell and so are we. It's always a close game and going to be one of those dogfights like every time. They're swarming to the ball. Their guys are relentless. "I wouldn't say we hate them. I respect the hell out of all those guys over there because of how they play. When the ball is snapped, you definitely want to kick their ass and they expect it and that's what we expect to do." The ultimate compliment exchanged between the two teams was when former Ravens coach Brian Billick said he hated Ward, but that he could play for him anytime. That opinion isn't confined to Ward. " Yes, there's tons of guys on their team that could play here and the coaches would like them, we would like them," Yanda said. "I'm sure guys could say that about guys on our team too that we're similar in how we play I think it comes down to heart. I think everybody has their hearts in it, Pittsburgh and the Ravens." Both teams believe in constructing their teams through the draft.

And both invest heavily in their respective personnel departments, which are manned by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and Steelers vice president of football operations Kevin Colbert. And both franchises have strong ownership with Steve Bisciotti in Baltimore and the venerable Rooney family in Pittsburgh. "Two first-class organizations from the top down, you think back historically, you've got the Rooneys and you've got Art Modell," Harbaugh said. "I think that's the roots of the National Football League right there. And I know the Rooneys and the Modells are just great friends and basically pioneered so many things in this league and built the league. That's probably where it starts. "Steve Bisciotti sets the tone here now, and I think he's built on Art Modell's legacy and added his personality and his principles to it, which have made us even stronger. Ozzie Newsome, obviously, so strong organizations start at the top." To win this game, the Ravens will have to vanquish Roethlisberger for the first time in four years. A two-time Super Bowl winner, Roethlisberger always seems to make the clutch play that his team needs to edge the Ravens. In his last five games against Baltimore, Roethlisberger has thrown five touchdowns with three interceptions while Flacco has been intercepted seven times against six touchdowns. "You talk about Ben and what he's meant to the Steelers," Harbaugh said. "We're hoping to get Joe to that kind of perch where he can take over games just by his talent and personality. "It seems like we see great quarterbacks a lot. We've beaten our fair share, but we haven't beaten him. So, it's our turn." For the entire season, Roethlisberger has thrown only five interceptions. And that includes a current streak of his past 158 throws. Now, the Ravens are hoping to end his mastery of them.

"I'm always going to be pissed off anytime we walk off that field and we're not a winner," Lewis said. "So, hopefully, we can change that this time." Notebook: Heap eager for another shot at Pittsburgh By Aaron Wilson PITTSBURGH – It was a painfully short appearance for Todd Heap the last time the Baltimore Ravens played the Pittsburgh Steelers. It lasted a few seconds as the two-time Pro Bowl tight end pulled his right hamstring on the first play from scrimmage while running a pass pattern at M&T Bank Stadium in early December. Heap wound up missing the next three games. Now, Heap gets another shot at the Steelers in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field.

Heap couldn't help but think that the outcome of the Ravens' 13-10 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 5 might have been different if he hadn't hurt his leg.

"I thought about it at the time," Heap said. "Obviously, in my mind, I felt like I could've made a difference in that game. I was very frustrated sitting back and watching the game in the locker room. I'm just excited that I'll be out there and be a part of this one, let alone with so much on the line." Now, Heap is coming off one of the top games of his career. He set franchise records for receptions and yards with 10 catches for 108 yards during the Ravens' 30-7 wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "Todd's one of the best players in the National Football League," coach John Harbaugh said. "We lost him on the first play, and that was a big deal. We've been in this game where we haven't had a lot of our guys. I hear a lot of talk about how [the Steelers] don't have some of their guys in different games, but that's just part of football. "You don't apologize for who you have or who you don't have. You go play the game with what you've got, and that's how it goes." Against the Chiefs, quarterback Joe Flacco targeted Heap 13 times. He took advantage of the mismatch with rookie safety Eric Berry.

This time, he'll be hoping to isolate Heap against linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Heap has caught 54 career passes for 602 yards and four touchdowns against the Steelers. Over the past eight games, Heap has averaged 62 yards per contest and has caught five touchdowns. "Anytime you lose out on a guy like Todd, it's going to hurt you," Flacco said. "Anytime you lose out on a guy of Todd Heap's caliber, especially when he is playing the way he has this year, yeah, that can definitely hurt you as an offense." BIRK, CARR ARE QUESTIONABLE: Cornerback Chris Carr is officially questionable for Saturday's playoff game due to a hamstring injury. Carr is expected to be a game-time decision, but said Thursday he expects to play. "It's one of those things that you feel like you're going to be fine, you don't think it's going to be too serious and I felt like I'm going to play on Saturday," Carr said. "But certain injuries you never know how they're going to feel. So, it's not like an ACL where you know you're done, there's no way you're going to be able to play.

" It's one of those injuries where I feel good and I feel like I'm going to play, but you just never know. If I don't feel good, then I won't go," Carr said. "But I feel like I will feel well enough on Saturday."

Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk (left knee) is also questionable as well as safety Tom Zbikowski (bulging disc in his back). Inside linebacker Tavares Gooden (dislocated left shoulder) and wide receiver Donte' Stallworth (illness) are probable. Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) is doubtful and not expected to play. Safety Troy Polamalu (ankle) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdomen) are probable. MCKIE CUT, MATTISON PROMOTED: The Ravens have cut veteran fullback Jason McKie and promoted offensive guard Bryan Mattison from the practice squad. McKie was signed when the Ravens were concerned about Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain's sprained ankle. With McClain healthy, McKie never appeared in a game. And the Ravens could use Mattison as insurance in case Birk's left knee flares up during Saturday's playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Birk is questionable, but is expected to play. If he can't go, the Ravens would move right guard Chris Chester over to center and probably have Tony Moll step in for him. Another option would be moving right tackle Marshal Yanda to right guard and inserting Oniel Cousins at right tackle. McKie, 30, has previous stints with the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The 5-foot-11, 247-pounder entered the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Temple in 2002. McKie was the Bears' starter for four years and was signed to a five-year contract extension four years ago, but was cut in March after seven years with the team and two years remaining on his contract. Signed by the Saints in May, he was cut in July and then re-signed in August before the team terminated his contract on Sept. 10. CHIEFS NOT FINED: Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and defensive end Tyson Jackson weren't fined by the league office after a pair of plays were reviewed by the NFL. Following their playoff win at Arrowhead Stadium, the Ravens complained about Belcher's helmet-to-helmet shot on Flacco and Jackson placing Heap in a headlock.

"We saw both of those on film," Harbaugh said Monday. "We sent those into the league. The helmet-to-helmet on the slide, Joe is protected at that point from a head shot. And then the other one, that speaks for itself. Everybody saw that.

"I thought our guys did a good job of keeping their poise. From that perspective, I was proud of the way they kept their poise. For the most part, walked back to the huddle. We encourage them to do it. You can only take so much sometimes. I thought they did a good job of not getting penalized."

Operating as a bodyguard for his teammate, offensive tackle Michael Oher intervened on Heap's behalf. "It looked like he was trying to take his helmet off," Oher said. "I don't know what he was doing. You can't have that on a teammate. We're a family."

SUGGS RIPS TOM BRADY, AGAIN: Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs escalated his long-running feud with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, referring to his three Super Bowl victories as "questionable." During a Sirius radio interview, Suggs referenced a few things in Brady's background. "He's got the tuck rule incident (2001 playoff win over the Oakland Raiders) and you got the videotaping of other teams' practices," Suggs said. "It's like "Oh OK what's going on here?' But hey, it is what it is. They won the games no matter how you did it."

Suggs has had a problem with Brady ever since he was flagged for roughing the passer in a loss at New England on a questionable call. "I guess it all brews from when I nicked his knee a little bit," Suggs said. "I was like, 'Wow you almost hit a guy and get flagged?' I never knew one man could have so much power." It's worth noting that Suggs is known for his sense of humor, so some of his comments can be taken as him having fun.

"Maybe because he's Tom Brady and he dates supermodels," Suggs said. "That could have a lot to do with it. Man, this guy's got the world, he's winning Super Bowls and dating supermodels. It don't get much better than that, rules made for him. He gets to tell the referee when to throw the flag."

Brady got the last word against Suggs following a 23-20 overtime win over Baltimore in October. "You know, we've played those guys a lot, and they've beat us one time in all the times that I've played them," Brady said. "They talk a lot for beating us once in nine years." BOLDIN MOVES: Wide receiver Anquan Boldin's last big regular-season game was against the Steelers, catching five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.

Then, he combined for only eight receptions, 67 yards and no scores over the Ravens' last four regular-season games. Against the Chiefs, Flacco connected with Boldin for five catches, 64 yards and a touchdown. Boldin has a strong track record against the Steelers, catching seven passes in the first game in Pittsburgh this season. "It's going to be a hard-hitting, physical game, so that's exactly what I'm expecting," Boldin said. "I'm ready to play." He also caught eight passes for 84 yards against them in Super XLIII when he was with the Arizona Cardinals.

"I don't know that we've made a concerted effort to try to minimize his impact," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Really, we're just trying to do what is required for us to win. No question, he is a legitimate red zone threat, a big part of that."

LONG TIME AGO: For veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, he's not dwelling on his game-winning touchdown during the Ravens' 17-14 win over the Steelers back in October. "That was a long time ago," Houshmandzadeh said. "Joe threw me the ball. I like to be in those type of situations. My number was called. You can't make a play if your number isn't called. Luckily, Joe threw me the ball when I was open." A former Pro Bowl selection with the Cincinnati Bengals, Houshmandzadeh has had a lot of success against the Steelers. In 15 career games against Pittsburgh, he has registered 78 receptions for 808 yards and six touchdowns.

With the Ravens this season, Houshmandzadeh has caught 30 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns while operating in a complementary role as the third receiver. "To be honest with you, the teams I've been on before with Cincinnati, the coaches and Carson Palmer, they know what type of player I am," Houshmandzadeh said. "They know I like to be in those type of situations. Carson trusted me." Now, Houshmandzadeh is preparing for a third game against Pittsburgh this season. "It should be fun, I like playing in Pittsburgh," Houshmandzadeh said. "I like their fans. They give you a hard time, but they understand the game fairly well. It's a lot of trash talking." Houshmandzadeh won his first career playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, catching one pass for 28 yards. "I just hope we win this one," he said. "I really don't know how this game will play out."



LOOKING AHEAD: Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth missed the first seven games of the season due to a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot. He caught only two passes for 82 yards, rushing for 45 yards on five carries. Still, he'd like to return to Baltimore next season and has had a preliminary talk with general manager Ozzie Newsome about the possibility.

"I've talked to Ozzie briefly," Stallworth said. "I don't want to go too much into that, but I would love to come back here if the opportunity presents itself."

Stallworth said he's bracing for a bumpy offseason because of the uncertain labor situation due to the prospect of a lockout. "I've been taking care of my financials," Stallworth said. "I'm still going to continue to prepare myself like I'm getting ready for the season. I'll start working out and getting myself ready to get back into the flow of things in February."



GRIND IT OUT: The Ravens have been stonewalled by the Steelers' run defense this season, averaging only 56.5 yards per contest. That's below the top-ranked Steelers run defense's average of 62.8 yards allowed per game. Ray Rice is the last running back to eclipse the century mark against the Steelers in their last 50 games, rushing for 141 yards on Dec. 27, 2009. "We know what they are against the run," Rice said. "You can't just take the ball and run it right at them. You have to pick and choose where you run the ball against their team." Willis McGahee has rushed for three touchdowns in his last five games against the Steelers. He scored two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game.

"We can play with them," McGahee said. "We have the same type of guys they do. We got to get our running game going. The mentality you got to have is you've got to believe in running the ball and grind out some yards.

The 6-foot, 240-pound former Pro Bowl runner has rushed for a career-low 380 yards this season, but scored five touchdowns. With his physical running style, McGahee seems well-suited to compete with the Steelers' physicality.

"I'm a big back," McGahee said. "I don't think nobody likes to tackle a big back in cold weather. I'm a downhill runner. I think you've got to have a big body to run against Pittsburgh. "They've got a good defense. There's lot of hits coming. Big backs tend to fall forward and keep going and going and going."

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