Go time: Steelers have the edges

PITTSBURGH – If John Harbaugh believes in curses, he might not want to set foot in Pittsburgh for an AFC Championship Game against the Steelers. ...

... Consider the last such game the Steelers won at home:

"My wife and I had an apartment in Cincinnati and I was coaching the University of Cincinnati and we had just finished up a recruiting weekend," said Harbaugh, now the first-year coach of the Baltimore Ravens. "We were watching the game and I thought he caught the ball, too."

"He" would be Aaron Bailey, and, no, he dropped the last-second heave from quarterback Jim Harbaugh that sent the Indianapolis Colts home and the Steelers to the Super Bowl. That was 13 years ago.

"In the Harbaugh family," said Jim's brother, "that game is kind of historic. " It's also historic in that the Steelers have lost three AFC title games at home since then. Their fourth try will come against another Harbaugh, who leads a beat-up bunch of Baltimore Ravens into Heinz Field for tonight's 6:40 kickoff.

The Ravens will be playing a game for the 18th consecutive week against a Steelers team that obviously recharged itself with its first-round playoff bye. In last week's win over the San Diego Chargers, Ben Roethlisberger's arm hadn't looked better all season. The same can be said of Willie Parker's legs, and on down the line through Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Bryant McFadden, Santonio Holmes and most of the starters.

The Ravens will be without CB Samari Rolle, and in his place will likely be Frank Walker, whom punter Mitch Berger claimed had spit in his mouth in the last Steelers-Ravens game.

Three other Ravens missed the entire week of practice: OLB Terrell Suggs (shoulder), WR Derrick Mason (knee/shoulder) and DE Antwan Barnes (chest). Suggs is the Ravens' best pass-rusher, a player who's sacked Steelers quarterbacks eight times since entering the league in 2003. He could miss the game, and his backup, Barnes, has already been ruled out.

"They are going down to a three," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of the Ravens' depth chart. "That is usually a significant drop."

Along with Suggs and Mason, listed as questionable for the Ravens are DT Justin Bannan, WR Mark Clayton, TE Todd Heap, LB Jarret Johnson and RB Le'Ron McClain. Nicked but probable are Ray Lewis, Lorenzo Neal and Ed Reed.

The Steelers list only Troy Polamalu and Justin Hartwig as probable, leading Coach Mike Tomlin to say Friday, "This is as healthy as we have been all year."

Will it be an advantage for the Steelers?

"It can be. It can be," said Hines Ward. "At the same time, in a championship game, you can throw everything out – the records, how sore you're feeling. The adrenaline of this game will take over. You're one game away from the Super Bowl, and how fitting that Pittsburgh's playing Baltimore. They have some guys banged up; we have some guys banged up. But by the time Sunday comes, I'm sure all those banged up guys will play and they'll play their hearts out."

That's what the Ravens are saying. Reed referenced the example being set by his team's director of player development, O.J. Brigance, who's suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease.

But defensive end Trevor Pryce admitted to being banged up. "I was talking to my trainer yesterday about it," Pryce said, "and he's like, ‘How are you playing?' I said, ‘I'm hanging on by a very thin rope, my friend.' I think we all are. Eighteen straight games, and we're relatively healthy. We're all a little tired and whatnot."

If the Steelers can't benefit from better health, perhaps their edge lies in an experienced quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger will play in his third AFC title game in five years. Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco's only title game was played several notches below on the football food chain.

"At that time there were pretty big stakes because we wanted to win the I-AA National Championship," Flacco said. "It's a year and a month later, but it's still a championship game. That game was important. This year, it's this game. I'm not going to approach it any differently. I understand the scale is a little bit bigger, but it's still a football game. We're going against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yes. I'm just going to look at my teammates and we'll all have confidence in each other, and that's why we know we can go out there and play well."

Flacco's Delaware Mud Hens lost to Appalachian State, 49-21, or just about the same score as Roethlisberger's first AFC title game, a 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots. Since then, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have beaten the Denver Broncos in an AFC title game, but that was on the road following the 2005 season. The Steelers are determined to eradicate the black cloud that's hung over their stadium in title games – at least since the last one in which a Harbaugh participated.

"I'm 0-2, unfortunately, in championship games here," said Ward. "Of course I want to win at home. I remember vividly playing the championship game and watching the opposing team celebrate on our field. It's something that stuck with a lot of our veteran guys. You definitely don't want to see Baltimore cheering on our field, celebrating.

"We get another opportunity to play at home in front of our crowd in a championship game. Hopefully we can go out there and win it for them."


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