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Old 09-11-2011, 03:06 AM   #1
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Default Steelers are the 'black hole of doom' for Ravens

Steelers are the 'black hole of doom' for Ravens
Sunday, September 11, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette archives

Earl Campbell was one of the most dominant runners of the 1970s, but even he couldn't prevent opportunities from slipping away in the face of the Steelers.

In six seasons as head coach of the Houston Oilers, Bum Phillips assembled one of the best and most successful teams in the National Football League. From 1975 to 1980, the Oilers compiled a 55-35 record, had four seasons with 10 or more victories and won four playoff games.

And they did it with a team that was built to have it all -- a golden-armed quarterback named Dan Pastorini, a rib-jarring running back named Earl Campbell, a lanky big-play receiver named Ken Burrough and a swarming "Luv Ya Blue" defense led by defensive end Elvin Bethea.

By 1978, the Oilers were darn near unbeatable. They posted consecutive seasons of 10-6, 11-5 and 11-5 and made it to the AFC Championship game in back-to-back seasons.

By all accounts, they were one of the two best teams in the NFL.

Problem was, they couldn't beat the team that was considered the best, the team that was in their own division.

The Steelers.

"FDR said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself," Phillips said at the time. "Well, the Steelers are fear itself."

In the folksy manner that was his signature, Phillips became known for the expression, "The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh." And, yet, no matter how many times he threatened to kick down the door that would lead his team to the Super Bowl, his Oilers could never beat the Steelers when it really mattered.

In 1978, after splitting the regular-season series by winning in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were ambushed by the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium, 34-5, a game that came to be known as the "Ice Bowl" because of the horrid weather conditions.

In 1979, after splitting the regular-season series again, the Oilers lost to the Steelers again in the AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium, 27-13, sending the Steelers to an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl title in six years.

The Oilers could handle any other team in the NFL. In the four playoff games that preceded their back-to-back meetings with the Steelers, they beat Miami, New England, Denver and San Diego by a combined 78-44. But, when it mattered most, they could never get past the team from their own division.

"We got to the point where we felt we could beat them, but not two out of three," Phillips was saying the other day from his home in Goliad, Texas, about 150 miles southwest of Houston. "And we were right. We could beat them one out of three, but not two out of three."

The Oilers were one of the best teams of the decade, but they never made it to the Super Bowl because the Steelers stood in their way. Phillips was asked if his team had a mental block against its division rival.

"Nah, it's usually physical," he said. "They were physically better than we are. Pittsburgh just had better players."
The Ravens' turn

More than 30 years later, it's déjà vu all over again.

The Baltimore Ravens are one of the best and most successful teams in the NFL who seemingly have it all -- a strong-armed quarterback named Joe Flacco, a multi-dimensional running back named Ray Rice, a productive receiver named Anquan Boldin and a swarming defense led by a pair of future Hall of Famers, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed.

And yet, after a season in which they went 12-4 and made the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the Ravens discovered again, when it mattered most, they couldn't beat the team from their own division -- the Steelers.

"I don't think they have a mental block," Phillips said of the Ravens, a team that reminds him of his Oilers. "They just do a good job in Pittsburgh. They do a good job in Baltimore, too, they just haven't gotten over that hump. One of these days they will."

Understandably, the Ravens are beginning to wonder when that day will be.

To be sure, they have proven they can beat the Steelers. Witness their 17-14 victory in Week 4 last year at Heinz Field when Flacco completed four consecutive passes in the final minute to score the winning touchdown with 32 seconds remaining.

And they get another chance to do so today when the teams open the regular season against each other at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

But, in the past eight meetings, the Steelers are 6-2 against the Ravens. More importantly, four of those wins came in significant games in which the Ravens had a chance to either win the division or advance in the playoffs.

And, despite having wonderful chances in each game to do so, the Ravens squandered the opportunity and lost to the Steelers.

Again. And again. And again.

"They spoiled our Super Bowl dream for two out of the last three years," Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs said Wednesday. "So we gotta switch that. It's sickening and it ends our season every year and we lose to our division rival. I'm sick of it. I'm disgusted. I'm tired of having a sick feeling in my stomach."


• In Week 14 of the 2008 season, the Steelers came back to beat the Ravens on a debated 4-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds remaining in which replay had to decide if Holmes broke the plane of the goal line when he caught the ball. The Steelers won the division with a 12-4 record and had a first-round playoff bye; the Ravens finished 11-5 and had to go on the road as a wild-card team.

• One month later, in a rematch in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field, the Ravens cut the lead to 16-14 in the fourth quarter, only to have their hopes dashed when Troy Polamalu returned a Flacco interception 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:24 remaining.

• In Week 12 last season, with the teams tied for the division lead at 8-3, the Ravens were trying to protect a 10-6 lead when Flacco strangely attempted a pass on second-and-5. Polamalu came untouched from the blind side, stripped the ball on a sack and the turnover led to Isaac Redman's iconic 9-yard catch-and-run with 2:51 remaining. The 13-10 victory gave the Steelers their 20th division title, even though both teams finished 12-4. Polamalu's play likely led to the firing of offensive line coach John Matsko after the season.

• One month later, in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Ravens looked as though they would end their personal drought against the Steelers by taking a 21-7 halftime lead. But the Steelers forced turnovers on three consecutive possessions in the second half and roared back for a 31-24 victory, thanks in part to a 58-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown on third-and-19 that set up the winning touchdown.

Four games, one defining moment in each. That's how excruciatingly close each Ravens-Steelers game has become, one of the reasons it is the most intense rivalry in the NFL. The past eight games have been decided by a total of 35 points, with five of those games decided by three.

Worse, Baltimore has yet to beat Roethlisberger since Flacco and coach John Harbaugh arrived in 2008. The Ravens' only two victories in the past eight games came at home in 2009 when Dennis Dixon started for an injured Roethlisberger (concussion), and last year in Week 4 at Heinz Field when Roethlisberger was serving the last of his four-game suspension. Charlie Batch started and came within one third-down conversion in the final two minutes of securing the win for the Steelers.

"You got to beat the Steelers," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, who was 9-9 with two division titles in nine seasons against the Steelers. "You don't have to start qualifying reasons why. You just want to beat the Steelers. You know this game is going to have ramifications down the line. It's going to affect something."

Billick, now an analyst for Fox Sports, was asked if the Steelers have become a mental obstacle for the Ravens, a hurdle they are unable to leap at the most critical juncture.

"You just kind of keep chopping wood," Billick said. "They know they got to beat the Steelers for a whole lot of reasons, the least of which is John has to get that monkey off his back. But the players don't care. They just want to beat Pittsburgh."

Then he added, "They'll tell you, no, they're not aware of it, that it's just a game. But, of course, it does begin to get into your psyche. Now, can you overcome it? Sure.

"Players like Ed [Reed] and Ray [Lewis] have beaten Pittsburgh. They haven't made that distinction. But the coaches, it can't help but linger."

Lewis, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, is the longest tenured defensive player in the league with the same team. What's more, he is the only player who remains from the Ravens' Super Bowl team in 2000.

He dismissed talk of a mental block against the Steelers as easily as he fights off a pulling guard.

"I think that's humanly impossible," Lewis said. "Simply because, every year, no matter what year, that's the year it was, no matter who you lost to. Losing to Pittsburgh the last game of the year has no bigger difference than losing to somebody earlier in the year. It's the same difference at the end of the day because if that team goes on and beats you and wins the Super Bowl, then you look back and say that should have been us.

"That's just the way it is. Whoever's year it is that year, that's the year it is. So mental blocks are from week-to-week. Once the game is over, win, lose or draw, you have a 24-hour rule."
Always on their mind

Perhaps, but the Ravens, as an organization, can't help but always think of the Steelers and justifiably so.

Ozzie Newsome, their general manager, said when he interviews potential draft prospects at the NFL combine he always asks them, 'How are you going to react when we go to Pittsburgh and play at Heinz Field?' He does that because he wants to gauge the player's reaction, determine if they have the proper makeup to play for the Ravens.

Before the Steelers embarked on their recent run of Super Bowls, former coach Bill Cowher said he drafted players such as Polamalu with the idea of combating the athletic tight ends in the division. Among the players to whom he was referring was former Ravens tight end Todd Heap.

Harbaugh was asked if he builds his team with the Steelers specifically in mind.

"To say that would be 100 percent [true] would probably be an overstatement," Harbaugh said. "But I think you always build your team for your division, for the places you play, the weather conditions you play, the field conditions you play against and the teams you play against.

"Obviously the Steelers have rightly earned control. They have won the division five times since 2002. They certainly won it two of the last three years since I have been coaching here, so we certainly have to keep them in mind. They earned that."

The Ravens have changed the makeup of their roster this season, releasing trusted players such as Heap, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and running backs Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee and bringing in big-play receiver Lee Evans, running backs Vonta Leach and Ricky Williams, and offensive linemen Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode.

Billick, who was fired after the 2007 season, really likes the changes, so much so that he said this might be "one of the best teams they've had. I like what they're doing. Their commitment to the run is clear."

But, he added, it might not be the right makeup to beat the Steelers.

"If I were to design a team to beat the Steelers, I'm not sure that's the way you go about it," Billick said. "If you're going to beat Pittsburgh, you've got to stretch them out and spread those brilliant schemes of Dick LeBeau. If you're going to stay restricted and use the run to set up the pass, Dick is going to chew you up. When you look at their current configuration, you wouldn't say they're built to beat the Steelers."

In other words, they're not equipped to kick down the door.

Just ask Bum.

• -regular season only

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11254...#ixzz1Xd45rtbV
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Old 09-11-2011, 05:51 AM   #2
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Default Re: Steelers are the 'black hole of doom' for Ravens

Great article ... the simple answer is ... Yes, the Steelers are the "black hole of doom" for the Ravens.
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