May the bitter team win
By Gene Wojciechowski
PITTSBURGH -- This Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry has everything but a conscience. There's name calling. Angry accusations. Felony indictments.
And that's just the Baltimore mayor. Pittsburgh's mayor is into name changing. But more on that later.
Meanwhile, you should see what the actual Ravens and Steelers are saying and doing as Sunday night's AFC Championship Game approaches. It's nastier than one of those weekly catfights on "The View."
"When you get two bullies going against each other," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said, "it's who's the strongest bully."
Everybody is chirping this week. A few days ago, Baltimore wide receiver Derrick Mason warned the No. 2-seeded Steelers, "The Ravens are coming, so prepare yourself."
Told Friday of Mason's comments, Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward feigned terror and, in a mocking tone, said, "Whooooo."
So much for the Mason intimidation factor.
"That doesn't scare anybody," said Ward, the former Super Bowl MVP who broke Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers' jaw earlier this season with a block. "That doesn't scare me. Whatever it takes to motivate yourself to go out. Talk is cheap to me. We line up Sunday and we're gonna go out and play and the better team's going to win. But for what Derrick said, I don't know if I'm supposed to be scared or laugh at that."
Ward, by the way, is the runaway leader of a Baltimore Sun online poll that asks readers, "Which of the following Steelers do you hate the most?"
Hate, not dislike.
The last time I looked, Ward had earned nearly 54.1 percent of the vote (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was next at 7.9 percent). In a weird football way, it's a compliment. Ward prides himself in getting under your skin. Except Ward gets under it not like a splinter but like a two-by-four.
"I don't know why Baltimore dislikes me too much," Ward said. "I love the crabcakes there. I love the view in Baltimore. I don't know -- I'm a likable guy. I don't know what's not to like about me."
Here's a guess: Some of the Ravens think he's a cheap-shot artist. Ravens linebacker Bart Scott told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook: "His time will come. He'll get his. He'll come across the middle one day and someone will hit him or take out his knee. The guy will be fined and [Ward] will be gone. No one will care. No one will even care. No one will send him any cards saying they're sorry. Not to that guy. … You reap what you sow."
See what I mean? The Ravens-Steelers matchup makes the NFC Championship Game look like a Tupperware party. The only thing missing is a bounty on players. Oh, wait, the Ravens supposedly did that with Ward and Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Anyway, this will be the third time Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played each other this season. The Steelers won the Sept. 30 game on a 46-yard field goal in overtime and won the Dec. 14 game on a disputed, last-minute touchdown catch. The combined margin of victory: seven points.
"We thought we put dirt on them a couple of times," Farrior said. "The first couple games, we thought we had them out of there. But they're a great team and they fought back hard to get themselves in this position."
Now the Steelers go for the Ravens three-peat, a feat that is easier to accomplish than you might think. According to the numbers, teams that win the two regular-season games against a division opponent are 11-7 in third-game meetings in the postseason.
Thing is, this is Ravens-Steelers. This is a rivalry with enough subplots to give Shakespeare an aneurysm.
First of all, they can't stand each other. Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon has accused the sixth-seeded Ravens of having an undeserved arrogance about them, of not showing the Steelers the proper respect. But Colon doesn't get it. Without arrogance, the Ravens are home for the playoffs. It's who they are.
Example: The Ravens were rooting for another Steelers rematch. That way, Scott told The Sun, they could "really build up the level of hatred."
Example: "If you need bulletin-board material to motivate you for this game," Ward said, "you don't even need to show up. … There's nothing more [Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis or any of those guys can say. We've heard it all. I've heard for 11 years now. You still got to go out there and line up and play."
Is any of this healthy? No. Is this a gas to watch? Absolutely.
The Ravens and Steelers are in the same division. They're separated by 250 miles. Their rosters are filled with what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls "dominant personalities."
The result is a rivalry that's deliciously and deliriously over the top. It's like asking the waiter to put a piece of key lime pie on top of your double fudge sundae. Dig in.
Remember Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs' putting a bounty on Mendenhall after the rookie predicted a big game against the Ravens? Mendenhall did indeed get knocked out for the year in the Sept. 29 game. Injured shoulder.
But what goes around comes around. Suggs is questionable this Sunday with … you guessed it: a shoulder injury.
Then there's this whole so-called "slobber moment" involving Ravens cornerback Frank Walker and Steelers punter Mitch Berger. It happened in the Dec. 14 game. In short, Walker sort of spat in the mouth of Berger.
Walker said it was an accident. Berger isn't buying it. Whatever happened, it was gross. So don't be surprised if Walker is the subject of some Steeler retaliation.
In fact, don't be surprised by anything in this game. The only four constants are: a close score, a chopped-up field (the Heinz Field turf hasn't been resodded since November), cold weather and lots of chippiness. Everything else is in play.
"We win by attrition," Tomlin said. "We force our will on an opponent, as do they."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced his will on the AFC championship news by temporarily changing his last name to Steelerstahl. Even if the Allegheny County Department of Court Records accidentally changes his name to, say, Toiletstahl, he'll still have had a better week than Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. Dixon was indicted Jan. 9 on charges of theft, perjury, misconduct and fraudulent misappropriation.
Never a dull nanosecond here at the AFC championship.
"The winner of this game, it don't matter what you do in the series after this," Ward said. "You're always going to remember this. If we win this game, Baltimore can beat us 10 straight times, but they will remember this game."
By the pregame sound of it, we all will.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org