PITTSBURGH (AP) — Looks like another winter classic in Pittsburgh.
Some NFL rivalries are manufactured. Some ebb and flow depending on the teams’ records. Then there’s Ravens vs. Steelers, one that is as real as it gets. The games usually are meaningful, with an intensity that isn’t faked and a physicality that caused Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward to label it the Black and Blue Bowl.
The eighth meeting in three seasons between AFC North rivals that are alike in makeup and personality will leave the winner one victory short of the Super Bowl. The survivor of Saturday’s AFC divisional game meets the winner of Sunday’s Jets-Patriots game in the AFC championship game on Jan. 23.
Yes, another big Ravens-Steelers game, only a month and 10 days since the last. Yet many in Baltimore and Pittsburgh couldn’t wait for it.
“Both sides know when the whistle blows, you’re going to get what we got and we’re going to get what they got,” said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, whose renowned nastiness fits perfectly into a rivalry where emotions run high and scores run low. “So, once again — I love to use this — here we go again.”
The Ravens and Steelers tied with 12-4 regular-season records, but Pittsburgh earned a first-round bye based on its superior division record — one made possible by its improbable 13-10 win in Baltimore on Dec. 5. The Ravens were within a couple of first downs of securing a 10-6 win, but Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu caused a Joe Flacco fumble that led to Ben Roethlisberger’s winning 9-yard touchdown pass with 2:51 remaining.
Just like that, a season flipped. But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin cautions the Ravens are capable of “flipping the script” in a series that’s so close, each of the last four games was decided by three points. The combined score since 2003 is Ravens 302, Steelers 302.
Still, the Ravens are 0-2 in the postseason in Heinz Field, where new sod was put down amid a series of snowy days that followed the NHL’s Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins on Jan. 1. That was hockey in the rain. This will be football with snow flurries, temperatures in the 20s and emotions that will be super heated.
ATLANTA (AP) — Bart Starr. Lambeau Field. Ray Nitschke. Titletown USA. Reggie White. Heck, they even named the Super Bowl trophy after Green Bay’s most famous coach.
Yep, the Packers are just oozing with tradition.
The Atlanta Falcons? Not so much.
“We’re fairly new on the block,” said Roddy White, the Falcons’ Pro Bowl receiver. “We’re still trying to prove ourselves. You’ve got to go out there and win playoff games. That’s what this league is all about.”
The Falcons (13-3) are the top seed in the NFC playoffs heading into Saturday night’s divisional game against Green Bay (11-6). Atlanta merely needs to win two more games — both at the Georgia Dome, where the team is 20-4 over the last three seasons — to reach the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.
Up first, Atlanta will have to get by a franchise with a much more impressive resume over the long haul.
The Packers have won a record 12 NFL titles, three more than any other franchise, a bounty that includes three Super Bowls victories. Compare that with the Falcons, who have managed just four division titles in 45 years and lost their lone Super Bowl appearance in 1999. In fact, Atlanta had never put together back-to-back winning seasons until its current run of three in a row.
When it comes to star power, Green Bay is about as good as it gets. The franchise boasts 21 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and surely has at least one more on the way with Brett Favre, who actually began his career with the Falcons but was traded away in one of the game’s great personnel blunders. The Packers’ list of greats includes coach Vince Lombardi, whose influence on the game was so profound the NFL put his name on its championship trophy shortly after his death in 1970.
No one has considered naming a trophy after anyone from the Falcons. Heck, the team has yet to send even one player to Canton; the best it can do is Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald, two Hall of Famers who played briefly for Atlanta late in their careers. And when it comes to coaches, the team with the odd-looking bird logo can’t come close to Lombardi or Curly Lambeau, who guided the Packers to their first six NFL titles in the 1930s and ’40s.
OK, the Falcons did hire one of Lombardi’s assistants, Norb Hecker, as their first head coach in 1966. But his record was a very un-Vince-like 4-26-1, which pretty much sums up the divide between these two franchises.
“That organization over there, they’ve been doing it for a long time,” Roddy White said. “They’ve pretty much got the Super Bowl trophy named after their squad and their coach. So, they’ve got a lot of good tradition. They’ve done a lot of good things in this league.”
The Packers insist they’re looking forward, but there’s no doubt they’ve got an eye on their legacy. Green Bay hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 1996 season. Longtime Packers such as receiver Donald Driver figure that’s long enough.
“We all know exactly what sits in front of us,” Driver said. “We want that trophy. It’s named after us. We need to get it back home, where it belongs.”