Ravens and Steelers continue their intense rivalry

OWINGS MILLS - A fiery gauntlet has already been cast between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a series typified by high stakes, hard hits and a history of venomous words. Past encounters even include a melee last year where former Baltimore defensive back James Trapp stomped his cleats on Steelers wideout Plaxico Burress' helmet.

Although there's a history of insults and gamesmanship, mutual respect actually flows back and forth between both organizations, insists Ravens coach Brian Billick.

Days before Sunday's kickoff to the season, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis characterized the intensity of this rivalry in a way more akin to gladiators competing in ancient Rome than a modern football game set in downtown Pittsburgh. "They believe they set the tone," Lewis said of the defending AFC North champion Steelers. "We believe we set the tone, so I guess the clash of the titans rolls around again."

"This is the bread and butter of football. This is what Bill Cowher sits on the sideline and smiles about. This is what I nod my head to. This is football, man on man, nothing fancy."

This game marks a return to the site where the Ravens' 7-9 campaign ended last year with a 34-31 loss marked by a fourth-quarter collapse. Baltimore is mired in a four-game losing streak to the Steelers that dates back to a 27-10 loss in a 2001 AFC divisional playoff game.

In terms of the history at Pittsburgh, Baltimore has won three of the last four regular-season games. Yet, the Steelers own an 11-4 overall mark since the Ravens' inception.

This game may represent a measuring stick for a club pairing rookie quarterback Kyle Boller with a veteran outfit led by Lewis. "It's just what you need to find out how far we've come as a team, playing what many have picked to be the best team in the AFC North, and rightfully so," Billick said. "This will be a great experience."

All that's lacking is the standup comedy that typified previous encounters. Just wait until kickoff, though. "We're out there jawing and yapping and that's part of the game," said cornerback Corey Fuller, a former Cleveland Brown. "They portray a tough mentality, so you have to play tough with them."

The bulletin-board material posted in locker rooms previously is somewhat dry this year despite reminders about past verbal assaults. There's nothing in the vein of Shannon Sharpe and Lee Flowers' old remarks.

After a 31-18 win in Baltimore last year that included two touchdowns by Burress in the first half before being ejected along with Trapp for fighting, Burress said: "Who is Gary Baxter? He wasn't even in the scouting report. He's terrible." Regardless of whether Burress was aware of Baxter's identity, Baxter held him to three catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns in the season finale.

Reminded of Burress' past remarks, Baxter declined to respond. "I got caught up in all that trash talk with Plaxico before and I'm not going to do that this year," said Baxter, who's playing free safety. "We're going to let our play do all the talking for us on Sunday. We're licking our chops."

Burress was also derogatory of Ravens franchise player Chris McAlister last year. "I love playing against Chris McAlister," Burress said. "He's cocky. He's arrogant. He was jawing at me, but he needs to be worrying about covering me."

In three seasons against Baltimore, Burress has caught 31 passes for 504 yards and five touchdowns.

"I don't owe any particular person on the Pittsburgh Steelers team anything," McAlister said. "I owe the whole Pittsburgh Steelers team a loss and that's we intend to go down there and give them. "Obviously, they get the respect of being the team to beat because they are the champs and for that reason we are gunning for them."

Lewis, who missed both Steelers games because of a shoulder injury that ended his season, said his skin was practically crawling in anticipation of this rematch. The perennial All-Pro tackler laid down a warning about the Steelers attempting to intimidate Boller, saying Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox should be wary, too.

When asked if the road to the AFC North crown travels through Pittsburgh, Lewis said: "The road goes through Baltimore. We're the last Super Bowl champs if you really want to be technical about it. Winning the division is one thing. Going all the way and winning it is a totally different thing."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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