OWINGS MILLS - Joe Flacco refuses to be haunted by the Pittsburgh Steelers even if they have behaved like vengeful ghosts whenever they've crossed his path.
The Baltimore Ravens' quarterback has a sterling record since entering the NFL headlined by three playoff appearances and at least one annual postseason victory.
As the Ravens kick off the season today at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco has won only two of his previous eight starts against the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers.
During those meetings, Flacco has completed only 53.4 percent of his throws for seven touchdowns and eight interceptions with an average of 193.7 passing yards.
"If you look at the numbers, the quarterback rating and all that, you can make that case," coach John Harbaugh said when asked why Flacco hasn't played as well against the Steelers as he does against the rest of the league.
"Specifically, why that is, I don't know. I'd be interested in your theories, though."
Flacco has piled up 10,206 career passing yards, 60 touchdowns and 34 interceptions and compiled a 36-19 record as a starter. Yet it's a different story altogether against the Steelers.
There's no more glaring example of that than his meltdown in the second half of the Ravens' 31-24 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Steelers last January.
After building a 21-7 lead by halftime where Flacco delivered a touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap, everything went south in the second half. He lost a fumble, threw an interception into heavy coverage and was sacked twice in the third quarter as the Ravens lost four yards of offense.
Flacco isn't dwelling on that bad memory, though.
"You look at it right now when you prepare for Pittsburgh, but other than kind of thinking about it for a couple of months after you lost, we haven't necessary revisited it too much," Flacco said. "It is what it is. We didn't play well in the third quarter, they scored some points off our turnovers and we weren't quite capable of getting the game back. That game has no influence on this game."
Of course, that game included breakdowns in pass protection from the offensive line, wide receiver Anquan Boldin dropping a potential touchdown pass and T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropping a key fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter.
Flacco has never defeated the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger is starting for them, going 0-6 with his lone wins against Pittsburgh coming against Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.
Although Flacco has won the most games in his first three seasons as an NFL quarterback, he has yet to outduel Roethlisberger.
"I don't ever want to go out into a game and feel like I have something to prove personally," Flacco said. "I am going to go out there and give our team the best chance that we can to win. It's our job as a team to go out there and play up to our abilities and win the game."
During the offseason, Flacco was derided often for his uneven track record against the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has eliminated Baltimore from the playoffs two of the past three year. And outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, a frequent tormenter of Flacco boldly declared that the idea of Flacco getting past the Steelers to make it to the Super Bowl "isn't going to happen in this lifetime."
Flacco passed for a career-high 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
"I think Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback, and he just happens to play for us," running back Ray Rice said. "He's a winning quarterback. And people look at all this other stuff saying he didn't win a Super Bowl. When you look at a quarterback, if it's based on winning, you have to look at Joe Flacco."
The Steelers have been tough for anyone to solve.
They ranked first in passing defense when Flacco was a rookie, fifth in total defense during his second season and first in run defense last season.
Flacco passed for 256 and 266 yards during the regular season against the Steelers, but only 125 passing yards during the playoff game.
"I say it every year about Joe: I expect Joe to be a winning quarterback," Harbaugh said. "That means winning the game that's at hand. That's what he's going to have to do: do the things in this game to win this game, put us in position offensively to block the looks we want to block.
"Make the plays you need to make or make good decisions. It's really no different than any game. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does. I think he's going to do real well and he's going to have a heck of a season."
Ravens LB Terrell Suggs: 'Everybody is expecting a gang fight'
OWINGS MILLS - Broken noses, blindside blocks, brutal tackles and even the odd death threat have defined the Baltimore Ravens' blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Regardless of the stakes or timing, the intensity and violent hitting never ceases.
"We know everybody is expecting a gang fight," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "So, we are just going to hold up our half of the bargain. Everything that fans want to see out of a rivalry is in this game, the hatred between the two teams, the physicality between the two teams. I think it's the best rivalry in sports."
Despite this only being the first game of the year today at M&T Bank Stadium for both teams and not a playoff game or a pivotal late-season encounter, the raw emotions are always present whenever the Ravens and Steelers hit the field.
"It's always a very physical game, it's usually close and usually very low-scoring," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's two very, very good defenses going against each other. It's in the division, so I think that adds a little something extra to it."
Especially for the Ravens after having their season ended two of the past three seasons by Pittsburgh, including an AFC title game loss three seasons ago and an AFC divisional playoff loss in January.
"They spoiled our Super Bowl dreams for the last two out of three years," Suggs said. "We have to switch that, you know? It's sickening. It ends our season every year we lose to our division rival. I'm sick of it. I'm disgusted. I'm tired of having a sick feeling in my stomach for a whole year. Game One, let's go."
There are many great traditional rivalries in the NFL, including the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys.
Since the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996, the Steelers have emerged as their most hated opponent.
"I asked a few of the guys on the team about the rivalry and how deep the disgust between the teams exists," said Ravens center Andre Gurode, a former Cowboy. "The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry is pretty serious, but I don't think I have ever seen anything like a rivalry like this."
Few series seem to inspire the football purist that embraces the collision aspect of the sport as much as Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
"There are no better games to play in for your legacy, for the reason you play the game," Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "To have that type of respect that, when people across the world hear Baltimore and Pittsburgh, everyone is going to have a front row seat for that because they know exactly what they're going to get for that. And that's the level of respect you carry in the league.
"I was young enough that I was able to really see the Dallas and San Francisco rivalry when they were really going at it. So, now we've created that rivalry for 16 years. So, to actually be a part of something like that is so special, you almost can't explain it."
Three seasons ago, Ravens running back Willis McGahee was knocked unconscious on a devastating hit from Steelers safety Ryan Clark.
Last December, Roethlisberger got his nose broken when he was swatted in the face by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
Lewis recalled when the Ravens shut out the Steelers in the first game of their Super Bowl season.
"It's never too early to get it on," Lewis said. "What it defines right now is now what you season is going to be like or not. What it defines is it's an AFC team, it's in your division. Deal with what you've got to deal with right now."
"The stakes are the same," Suggs said. "The stakes are always the same. It always comes back to this game between the two teams."
That's because they're both chasing the same goal, are geographically close, play in the same black-and-blue division and just plain dislike each other.
"Both teams are similarly committed to the same thing, which is putting themselves in position to pursue the Lombardi trophy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "You know, a prerequisite for that is division dominance. So, we're always going to have issues with one another in regards to that."
Ravens safety Ed Reed put the importance of this game into perspective.
"It kind of means a lot, but it's a long season," he said. "It's not a do-or-die situation."
Still, there's no mistaking this fact: The Steelers have won six of the past eight games against the Ravens.
That heightens the motivation for Baltimore.
"I don't want to downplay it, because that would be a little disingenuous," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a big game."
Ravens, NFL honor 9/11 victims
OWINGS MILLS - One decade after the United States was attacked by terrorists with tragic consequences, the Baltimore Ravens and their NFL colleagues will honor the anniversary today with a special tribute.
Players, coaches and other team officials will wear special "NFL 9/11" ribbons, patches or pins during today's season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It's very special for me, being that I'm from New York," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who's from New Rochelle, N.Y. "I can remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. Being in high school, changing periods at class and watching it on TV, watching that next plane go into that building, and not just watching it, but being 20 minutes away from New York City, it's a day you remember for the rest of your life.
"So, being able to play on 9/11 and represent the Ravens and your country, it's a different kind of pride. It's not the Armed Forces, but we can go out there and play with pride and be thankful for being here today."
Every NFL game will include a special tribute displayed on video boards across the country.
The Ravens-Steelers' pregame ceremony will include a performance of "Taps" via a live feed from Pennsylvania at the site of the Flight 93 national memorial.
"I think it will be a pretty emotional day for a lot of people out there," said quarterback Joe Flacco, a New Jersey native. "I think it will be a good thing for some football games to be on and occupy some people's minds with some good thoughts for a little while."
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis emphasized that the games' importance need to be kept in proper perspective.
"The game will always remain the game, but there's a real human side that our country is going to go through," Lewis said. "A lot of people lost mothers, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, aunts, coworkers. There's going to be a lot of grieving. There will be a lot of people who probably won't turn on the television because that pain will still exist from the last 10 years.
"They're still living it, and we have to be really conscious of that and honor them not only in our playing and who wins and loses the game, but also in your prayers. Our country really went through something very traumatic, and even if it didn't directly affect you, it does affect who we are."
Ravens players, coaches and volunteers from the military and first responders will hold a field-length American flag for a moment of remembrance and silence prior to the national anthem. All fans entering the stadium will receive their own American flag.
"It's flattering, because it just reminds us of how fortunate we are," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "That was a horrific incident in our country's history, and we can't forget the sacrifices. It's humbling."
The NFL and the NFL players Association will contribute $1 million together to three memorials and two charities related to what transpired on Sept. 11, 2001. Another $250,000 is expected to be raised from items auctioned from games played Sunday.
"Everybody remembers where they were 10 years ago on Sept. 11, even our guys who are 21 years old," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's just momentous. It's an honor to be a part of it. We are proud to be playing a very important football game, but nothing is more important than our country and the people who gave their lives. That's what you play for."
Harbaugh said he didn't think his players would be distracted by the anniversary and the surrounding events.
"They'll be thinking about the game," Harbaugh said. "I also think you can take a couple of minutes and take your heart and put it somewhere else for a short period of time and really honor our country and the sacrifices in the last 10 years in the wars that are being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and the families and the soldiers who have given so much.
"It's not hard to do that, and then our guys will be back to business, because that's really what America is all about: the freedom to be able to achieve and be a part of that and make the most of every single day or an opportunity like we're going to have to play a football game."
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