When the NFL's 2011 schedule came out in April, there were the Ravens and Steelers matched up once again in Week 1, an immediate renewal of what many consider the league's fiercest rivalry going. So Baltimore's season will begin the same way last year's ended, facing hated Pittsburgh, the team that it can't seem to beat when it matters most. The Ravens are fully aware that the only thing standing between them and where they want to go is that team in black and gold.
"This is all or nothing this year,'' said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs after a Tuesday afternoon practice. "When this journey first started, a lot of us were young men. I'm still a young man. I'm only 28. But I'm in my ninth year, so I feel like a window of opportunity is closing. There have been plenty of years that we let championship teams walk up outta here because of that team to the northwest of us. They've been the reason for that. So if we don't get over this hump this year, I don't know what else to say.''
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Suggs is rarely, if ever, at a loss for words, so you know he's serious when it comes to the frustration level in the Baltimore locker room. The Ravens in the three-year John Harbaugh coaching era are a sterling 32-16 (.667), and the only team in the NFL to win at least one playoff game in each of the past three seasons. They're both accomplished and respected throughout the league, and they're known as one of the league's most resilient and resourceful franchises, with a quality coaching staff and a superb front office.
But the Ravens haven't figured out how to win their division yet and really go places in the playoffs, because they can't get past Pittsburgh. They're just 2-6 in the Harbaugh era against the Steelers, with two of the past three seasons ending with painful postseason losses at Heinz Field (in the 2008 AFC title game, and in the 2010 AFC divisional round). And they were only in the position of needing to again go the wild card route in the playoffs last season due to a season-turning Week 13 loss at home to Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rallied for a 13-10 win on the strength of Troy Polamalu's strip sack of Joe Flacco in the game's final minutes. Both teams finished 12-4, but Pittsburgh won the division via tiebreaker.
That play by Polamalu not only changed the arc of the Ravens' season, it very likely helped get Baltimore offensive line coach John Matsko fired in January. When Polamalu came clean into the backfield and forced Flacco to fumble, highlighting an obvious missed blocking assignment, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Ravens 9, setting up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown. Seemingly that's how consequential every play in the Ravens-Steelers blood feud has become.
"They've won the games that matter, and you have to respect them for it,'' said Ravens running back Ray Rice, entering his fourth NFL season. "They're a great organization. They play hard, and they're everything people say they are. We're toe and toe and there with them, but obviously we've got to win the big games to get acknowledged with them. It's one of those situations where they know how to win. You have to give it to them. They know how to win. I think we know how to win as well, just not against them.''
If anything, the Ravens' 31-24 divisional round loss at Pittsburgh was even more inexplicable, with Baltimore building a commanding 21-7 halftime lead and silencing the hostile Heinz Field crowd, but then disintegrating beneath a steady stream of turnovers and dropped passes as Pittsburgh stormed back. It is plenty noted in the Ravens locker room that both years they've lost to the Steelers in the playoffs, Pittsburgh has gone on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (after the 2008 and 2010 seasons).
"All of them hurt,'' said Suggs, of the losses to the Steelers. "They all leave a bitter taste in your mouth. They've done it to us a few times now. And the thing is, in some of those games we've had 'em. We pretty much beat ourselves. If you go back and look at some of those last seven or eight games, at some point in the game you thought, Oh my God, Baltimore's going to win this game.
"It's the way we're losing to them. If we lose and flat out get beat, we get beat. But to give up plays and have them come back on us, it just stings even more. Our season was decided on a couple plays last year. They made the plays and we've hurt ourselves.''
For longtime Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, the mistakes made by Baltimore in the playoff loss had plenty to do with how Pittsburgh imposes its will on an opponent as a game goes on. For more than 30 years now, first as a Hall of Fame Browns tight end, and now as the respected front office boss of the Ravens, Newsome has been watching teams self-destruct against the Steelers.
"There was something about that 21-7 lead that I wasn't comfortable with,'' Newsome said. "There was something about it. There are times when you get a lead and you think you're one play away from it being a blowout. But I just didn't feel that way that day, because I know how they play and how they feed off one big play.
"We made mistakes and we don't normally do that. But they cause a lot of that to happen. We gave them some things, but they were forcing us to do some of those things. That's how good they are. They have a resolve about themselves, and if you're not willing to play them for four quarters, then you can lose the game. You can't play for just one half.''
In some ways, it has come to this: The annual showdowns with Pittsburgh are the only games on the Ravens' schedule that really matter. Newsome even acknowledged it somewhat when I asked him if he puts his roster together every year with the thought of how to beat the Steelers in the front of his mind. He doesn't do that with AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.
"Always Pittsburgh,'' Newsome said. "When I talk to most of the players at the [scouting] combine, I talk to them about 'How are you going to react when we go to Pittsburgh and play at Heinz Field?' I want to get a reaction, and the ones that are timid, I tell them I have a tough time thinking you could go to Heinz Field and help me win a football game. So yeah, it's there.''
It's there all right. The dominance of the Steelers is a topic that's never far from the brains of the Ravens and their fans, and some players know the battles with Pittsburgh have become at least partly mental. To pretend the Steelers aren't in the Ravens' heads at this point, after all the recent history, would be ludicrous.
"I'm sure there is some of that,'' Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco told me. "I don't know if I like admitting that, but sports is so mental. No matter what you say, a lot of it comes down to the mental side of it. These guys have beat us. When it comes down to it, they've figured out a way to win the game. And as much we don't want to admit that, it probably has a lot to do with the mental side of it.
"They've continued to push through. Things have not gone their way, but they've still fought through and gotten it done. We've bounced back, too, but we just haven't done it throughout the full 60 minutes. That's something that wins these games, and while both really are good teams, that mental aspect is the extra edge you get.''
The margin between the Steelers and Ravens remains razor slight. No game has been decided by more than nine points in the past three years, and six of their past eight meetings have been decided by four or fewer. Baltimore has yet to beat Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Flacco/Harbaugh era, winning at home in 2009 when Dennis Dixon started for an injured Big Ben, and winning at Pittsburgh in Week 4 of last season, when Roethlisberger was still suspended and Charlie Batch started for the Steelers.
Despite three strong seasons to begin his NFL career, Flacco will likely never get his due as one of the game's elite quarterbacks until he and his Ravens get over their Pittsburgh problem and start to regularly beat the Steelers. Newsome and others in the organization point out that once upon a time the Pistons owned Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but then the worm finally turned and a string of NBA titles ensued for Chicago.
"That's the hurdle we've got to clear, and that's the history we're going to have to overcome,'' Rice said. "Maybe when we beat them, we won't just beat them. A win is a win. But if we make a statement, and beat them in a way that they know they were really beaten, I think that leaves a taste.''
Week 1 in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens will once again start pushing that rock back up that hill, trying to get past those same familiar Steelers and back into the AFC playoff field. Hopefully as a higher seed and in a position of strength this time. In Week 9, the two rivals will meet again in Pittsburgh, on NBC's Sunday Night Football. I think I like Baltimore's chances to finally flip the script on the Steelers this year, and Flacco to me is the key for the Ravens putting together a run of their own in this lopsided series.
"I agree, and I think we're building a team around here that's going to be good for a while,'' Flacco said, echoing the conventional wisdom on Baltimore's roster. "When we finally jell and get over that hump, I think we're going to be able to take it to the next level and be a team that's around for a while and win some Super Bowls.''
But it's not that long haul that Suggs and some other Ravens veterans are focused on like a laser. Linebacker Ray Lewis recently told CBSSports.com that "I feel like now we have enough pieces in place to make a good run at the Super Bowl," and that he'll retire if the Ravens do indeed win the big one. He, Suggs and Ed Reed want to beat the Steelers right now, and start rewriting a story line that has grown bitter and impossibly tired in Baltimore: Good Ravens team loses to a better Steelers team, and watches Pittsburgh move on in the playoffs.
"It's like a rerun,'' Suggs said. "Everybody knows how this story ends, with us and the Steelers. It's about time we changed it, and give people something new. Right now, it's kind of like we pride ourselves on being a bully, but they're the ones that keep knocking us out of the playoffs. So they're the bully. One day you just got to say '[screw] it' and punch the bully totally in his mouth. Then they won't bully you any more.''
See. They're not sugar-coating the truth in Baltimore these days. The Ravens have some work to do this season, and once again, it figures to both start and end with the task of getting past Pittsburgh.