By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers Defense Photo Available Is the third time a charm, or just a bunch of hocus-pocus?
There will be an answer to that come the trophy presentation punctuating Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, but until then the whole matter of facing an opponent three times and where the advantage lies is a lot of guesswork.
"It's awesome that the conference championship comes down to two foes from the AFC North," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We've got a lot of work to do this week. Of course we're playing the Baltimore Ravens, and we are very familiar with them. I preface that by saying familiarity doesn't breed comfort."
Steelers-Ravens rarely is mentioned when discussions about the NFL's biggest rivalries take place, but that likely traces to the relatively short history. The Ravens weren't the Ravens until 1996, but before then they were the Cleveland Browns, and nobody who knows the NFL doubts the ferocity of Steelers-Browns.
But regardless of the national perception, this rivalry is a bitter one, and it's filled with events significant to both teams.
The Ravens' Super Bowl season of 2000 kicked off with a shutout win over the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium. The 2001 Steelers eliminated the defending champion Ravens from the playoffs. The Ravens injured Tommy Maddox in the second game of 2004 to open the door for Ben Roethlisberger, and the rematch in Pittsburgh was the game when the Steelers clinched the top seed in those playoffs. And the team that won the division title to prevent the Steelers from having a chance to defend their most recent Super Bowl championship was the Ravens.
As Tomlin has said many times, "They play the way we play."
These teams already have played twice, and while the Steelers won both, the combined margin of victory was just seven points. The game on Dec. 14 in Baltimore clinched the division title and a first-round bye for the Steelers, but Pittsburgh needed a 12-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to eke out a 13-9 win. And the Steelers won the first game, on Sept. 29 at Heinz Field, in overtime.
Close, physical games, with rushing yards coming grudgingly and turnovers being extra punitive. That's the history of the regular season version of this series, anyway.
"All of these matchups unfold differently and you can anticipate it, because you have to learn from your experiences," said Tomlin. "We have better familiarity with the matchups as do they. You prepare with all those things in mind. Every time you play somebody, even though it's the same team, you're different in some ways. Sure, we're different in some ways. I'm sure they're different in some ways. All those things factor into how the game will potentially unfold and how you prepare. Those are some of the things that we'll continue to weigh as we approach game time."
One way in which these teams certainly differ right now can be traced to their respective seedings in these playoffs. As the No. 2 seed, the Steelers were resting on their couches during the weekend of Jan. 3-4.
The Ravens, as the No. 6 seed, were playing that weekend in the heat of Miami, and then they had to travel again – on a short week – to battle the No. 1 seeded Titans in Tennessee. Emphasis on the word, battle. And at this stage of a season, having played an extra game is not necessarily an advantage.
"It potentially could be a factor, but I'm sure they're going to do everything in their power to make sure it's not," said Tomlin when asked if 60 physical minutes vs. the Titans could have an effect on the Ravens.
"It's just this time of year when everyone is beat up to a degree. It's always a factor when we play Baltimore, that attrition is going to be part of it. That's something we're well aware of. It doesn't dominate our thoughts. The same thing could happen to us quite frankly. That's the way that these two teams play football."
Whether it's two times a season, or as is the case in 2008, three times.