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Sunday, January 9, 2011
A Ravens-Steelers trilogy is 'poetic justice'

By James Walker

Lewis/Suggs
After dispatching the Chiefs, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens will take on division rival Pittsburgh.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nothing against the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs, but the only team that got a rise out of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday was the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Moments after Baltimore crushed and humiliated the Chiefs 30-7 at Arrowhead Stadium, you had the sense the Ravens were well prepared to field questions about their most-hated rival. Baltimore knew ahead of time that a wild-card win would set up another classic trilogy between the Ravens and Steelers, which will be the second time it has happened in the past three seasons.

"Here we go again," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said with a smile on his face. "I told you guys earlier in the year, man, that it's something [special] about the journey."

"It seems like poetic justice," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

As Harbaugh alluded, it's only fitting that these rivals settle their differences in the playoffs with both of their seasons on the line. There has been a lot of debate all season about which division team is truly better. The teams split two regular-season meetings and each finished 12-4. Pittsburgh won the tiebreaker and a coveted bye because it had a better division record.

But Saturday at Heinz Field there will be no excuses. The top division team will advance to the AFC title game and a shot at Super Bowl XLV.

"This is the NFL at its best," Ravens Pro Bowl defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "This is what the world wants to see. They want to see Baltimore and Pittsburgh."

On Sunday, Baltimore continued its stellar run the past three seasons in the wild-card round. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Harbaugh is the second NFL coach to win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons, joining former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. The Ravens own convincing wild-card wins over the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Kansas City in three consecutive seasons.

Baltimore also improved to 7-3 all time on the road in the playoffs and is arguably this year's most dangerous wild-card team, especially when the defense is playing at a Super Bowl level. The Ravens' defense the past two weeks forced 10 turnovers and allowed only 14 points. Kansas City had no answers for Baltimore after committing three interceptions, fumbling twice and allowing three sacks of quarterback Matt Cassel, who was battered and confused. He passed for only 70 yards, one of the worst passing performances in playoff history.

The Ravens said they were inspired by Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, who played with a heavy heart Sunday. His younger brother, Brian, was reported missing this weekend and police called off the search in Louisiana.  Brian Reed apparently jumped into the Mississippi River after being confronted by a deputy sheriff  in response to a stolen car report.

"What the Reed family is going through is a big part of this victory. That's what will be remembered by our players," Harbaugh said. "The Reed family is part of the Raven family, and the Raven family is part of the Reed family. That's the way it works with our team, our organization."

Jameel McClain
Linebacker Jameel McClain, 53, and the Ravens physically dominated Dexter McCluster and the Chiefs on Sunday.
Reed had four tackles, including a big hit on Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster, and received a game ball afterward.

"Who is a better teammate than Ed Reed?" Suggs said. "He didn't have to play today, but he played. And it was the simple fact that we wanted to give him three hours of peace to just go out there and have fun with your football brothers, and we did that."

The Ravens must be at their best again next week. The Steelers are well rested and franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 8-2 in his career against Baltimore, including six straight victories. Baltimore pulled off a rare win at Heinz Field in October, but that was during the final game of Roethlisberger's four-game suspension.

But there could be good karma for the AFC North. The last time these teams met in the playoffs was in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, and Pittsburgh advanced to win Super Bowl XLIII over the Arizona Cardinals.

The winner of this year's rivalry game will face the winner of the New York Jets and Patriots from the AFC East. Both divisional-round games involve teams that split the first two meetings in the regular season.

"It's Armageddon for all four teams, and there can only be one winner at the end," Suggs said. "What better teams than these four?"

Without a doubt, next weekend is going to be brutal in the AFC.

Perhaps the biggest question is, will any of these teams have anything left for the AFC Championship Game?