When the Steelers and Ravens met in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship two years ago, I covered the game for Sports Illustrated, and I saw Phil Simms taking a break from his CBS broadcast duties at halftime of what had been one of the most violent games in any sport that I'd ever seen. Simms, it seems, agreed.
"Is there some hitting out there today OR WHAT!'' Simms said with a dazed look on his face, as if to say, Boy, I sure am glad I'm not playing in this one.
There's something about this rivalry. It's almost medieval. Though it wasn't football justice that the Steelers came away from Buffalo with a gift win last Sunday when Steve Johnson dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass in overtime, I have to admit I was thinking when Pittsburgh survived: Good. Now the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game this week's going to be bigger. With both teams winning last week, this game now matches 8-3 Pittsburgh at 8-3 Baltimore, with the AFC North title and a playoff bye very much in play when they meet Sunday night on NBC.
I wanted to try to capture what the rivalry was like -- not the anger of town versus town, but what it's like on the field to play in this game. So I asked Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, whose hit on Willis McGahee in the open field of the AFC title game 23 months ago still rings as one of the biggest Steeler hits ever.
"After a game against the Ravens, you wake up Monday morning, and it's just different,'' he said. "These two teams have been built that way. If there's another team in football that's been built like us, like a physical team that takes pride in never being out-hit, it's Baltimore. I can guarantee you Sunday that on any play you look at, there'll be 22 guys on the field, and not a single one of them will be soft. Our attitude is, even if we lose, we can't let the other team be more physical, and I can guarantee you we won't. Even the players who you don't think of as playing physical position -- Derrick Mason, Hines Ward, Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall, all our guys -- come into this game attacking.''
Clark says photos from his hit of McGahee two years ago make up about 80 percent of the pictures he signs when he autographs for Steeler fans. In the title game, Pittsburgh led 23-14 in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens were driving, trying to get back in the game. McGahee took a short pass from Joe Flacco and turned upfield when Clark launched himself into McGahee, cracking into his helmet. Both men fell to the turf, and McGahee, severely concussed, lay motionless for several minutes until taken off the field on a cart. "I may live on in Steeler lore because of that one play,'' Clark said. "The sad thing is he got hurt, and I regretted that, obviously. But it's the kind of play you get in this rivalry.''
It's the kind of play, now, that will get a $50,000 fine from the NFL, most likely. And the recent crackdown by the NFL on helmet-to-helmet hits on receivers, which have left the Steelers feeling like the league office is targeting them, has actually changed the way Clark plays -- to a degree. "I try to place my aiming point lower than the head,'' Clark said. "I'll play hard, fast and physical, and deal with the rest later.''
He'll join the club then. One other point: I find it interesting that even though these two teams are as nasty to each other on the field as any two that I've seen in 26 years covering the NFL, there's a sort of warriors' code at play here. The two communities won't feel this way, but when the two teams walk off the field close to midnight Sunday, there will be a nodding sort of respect between them.
Clark acknowledged that respect. Take what he's about to say the right way, Pittsburgh.
"Hatred is a strong word,'' Clark said. "I don't particularly hate them. In fact, the ultimate respect I can give them is if I couldn't play for Pittsburgh, I'd want to play for Baltimore.''
He paused for a second, then laughed. "Now make sure you say I don't want to play for them -- I hope I play for Pittsburgh the rest of my career. I love the Steelers. I love being a Steeler. I love Steeler Nation. But here's what I mean: We play football like it's supposed to be played. So do they.''
In the safe new world of the NFL, I hope the collisions are loud Sunday. And legal. And not including the head. Because this is the game I look forward to like no other.
I remember a couple of years ago when the Eagles were scouting McCoy, the running back from Pitt, and thought he was the best receiver of the backs coming out that year. When he got to camp, they found out something else: He was going to learn to block well if it was the last thing he'd do. Now he's become the kind of all-around backfield threat the Eagles had for so long with Brian Westbrook.
In the totally predictable 34-24 win over the Texans on Thursday night, McCoy had 20 touches for 130 yards and two touchdowns. One TD came on the ground, the other in the air. He's become a perfect hot-receiver candidate for a smarter Mike Vick (eight targets, eight catches last night) and has a knack, like Westbrook, for almost always making the first tackler miss or breaking that tackle.
Tom Brady is completing a typically strong 66.3 percent of his throws, but New England's opposing quarterbacks are even better -- an alarming 68.3 percent. In the past three games, the generous Patriot D has surrendered 70, 76 and 78 percent, and with the maturation of Mark Sanchez with the Jets, that has to be a concern entering the likely AFC East championship game Monday night in Foxboro.
That's why McCourty's so important. In the Thanksgiving Day rout of the Lions in Detroit, McCourty continued his ascending play, with a couple of interceptions, one in which he and Calvin Johnson went up for the ball and McCourty out-fought him for it. Monday night in Foxboro, look for McCourty to have dangerous Jet wideout Santonio Holmes early and often. If McCourty loses more of those battles than he wins, the Jets will have a big advantage in the passing game and will be tough to beat.
At 6-foot-1 and 306 pounds, Williams is not the typical 3-4 defense run-stuffer; he's not the stout 330-pound type who just stuffs the run. But when Williams takes the field against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Brett Favre -- and, more importantly, the interior of the Vikings offensive line -- will know he's a rare player. They could see that from watching the tape of the Steelers' narrow win over the Bills last week. Williams had one of the best games by a defensive tackle in the league this year, with 10 tackles, two sacks and three more quarterback hits last week.
"He is not a typical anything,'' coach Chan Gailey told me Friday morning. "He's got unusual quickness and unusual competitiveness -- I mean, great quickness, great instincts, great competitiveness. That's what makes him a great football player.'' I said to the buttoned-up Gailey I haven't heard the word "great'' come out of him very often. "I choose that word very carefully, and I don't use it often,'' he said. "But Kyle's a great football player.''
Atlanta wide receiver Michael Jenkins' numbers against the Bucs on Sunday:
Amazingly, Jenkins doesn't have a touchdown yet this year, and I see the Bucs loading up to stop Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. But Jenkins has been targeted 22 times in the past three quiet weeks, and it's only a matter of time before he breaks out a bit.