OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Listening to fans around Baltimore talk over the last month, you would think the 2011 season not only begins but could possibly end when the Ravens welcome the Pittsburgh Steelers to town this weekend.
This Sunday marks the first meaningful game the Ravens have played since a second-half collapse that cost them their season in a 31-24 defeat in a divisional playoff game at Heinz Field last January. The frustration is still fresh for anyone emotionally invested, with the 134-day lockout causing that feeling to brood as both sides took to exchanging barbs via social media and a handful of interviews over the spring and summer.
With Pittsburgh enjoying the benefit of hosting playoff games against Baltimore in two of the last three seasons, the Ravens cannot overlook the significance in holding serve at home against their biggest adversary — even if it is only Week 1. The Ravens finished tied with the Steelers at 12-4 in 2010, but succumbed to the division record tiebreaker after losing to Pittsburgh in a critical Sunday night home game in early December.
“They spoiled our Super Bowl dreams for the last two out of three years,” said linebacker Terrell Suggs, perhaps the most outspoken of all the Ravens when it comes to stirring the pot against Pittsburgh. “It’s definitely time. We have to switch that. It’s sickening, and it ends our season every year 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 for a whole year.”
Even if the Ravens are able to upend Pittsburgh on Sunday, it’s only one step in a 17-week journey they hope ends with a fourth straight trip to the postseason. Critics will once again say a Week 1 match-up doesn’t really matter all that much when the season’s path remains a complete unknown, with injuries, adversity, and unexpected turns bound to occur. They’ll point to the rematch in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6 to truly gauge whether the Ravens can beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers when the stakes are higher.
However, 16-year veteran Ray Lewis only points to the Super Bowl season in 2000 when the Ravens traveled to Pittsburgh to shut out the Steelers in the opener to set the tone for a record-setting defensive performance that led Baltimore to a championship. A win against Pittsburgh on Sunday doesn’t make the Ravens’ season, but it speaks well for where they stand so early in the season after a series of changes to the roster in the preseason.
“It’s never too late to get it on,” Lewis said. “What it defines right now, it doesn’t say what your season is going to be like or not, but what it defines is it’s an AFC team, it’s in your division, deal with what you have to deal with right now.”
Plenty of uncertainty surrounds the Ravens as they continue to coordinate the work of the offensive line, featuring two projected starters who didn’t take a snap in the preseason and the newly-signed Andre Gurode, who arrived on the scene on Monday. The unit has the potential to be the most talented offensive line the Ravens have had in years, but how soon it all comes together is the uneasy proposition, especially with Pittsburgh’s intimidating front seven waiting.
The Ravens certainly wish their new line had a few games under their belt before playing one of their two most significant games of the season in the first week. However, coach John Harbaugh trusts a veteran group of linemen to maximize their reps in practice to carry over to actual games.
“They picked it up very quickly, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they play,” said Harbaugh, who acknowledged the Ravens will “streamline” the playbook a bit with the uncertainty on the offensive line for Sunday. “If this is our starting point, I sure like it. I’m looking forward to seeing how we grow. We’re going to get better as the season goes on, for sure.”
Few would dispute Harbaugh’s claim, but the notion does little to help the Ravens this Sunday. The Steelers won’t take any pity on an offensive line not used to playing together. A loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday will only amplify the song of the Ravens not being able to beat a Roethlisberger-led team.
And it will once again make critics question how great the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Baltimore really is when one always gets the better of the other when it really counts. Many of the Ravens need a win for their psyche as much as they do for their division title hopes.
“It’s the best [rivalry] in sports, I think,” Suggs said. “Everything that fans want to see out of a rivalry is in this game. The hatred between the two teams, the physicality between two teams. I think it’s the best rivalry in sports.”
Sunday’s result will neither erase past failures nor assure the Ravens of taking the next step in Harbaugh’s fourth season as head coach. Though a loss will affect what transpires the rest of the way, it won’t be the only factor in deciding the division. It’ll simply make the Ravens’ path that much more difficult.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world if you win or lose in Week 1,” said running back Ray Rice, who is eager to prove himself again after a critical fumble in the second half of the postseason loss in Pittsburgh. “But, to kick off your season with a win, it gets your confidence going for the rest of the year.”
A win over the Steelers with their star quarterback actually playing in the game would be uncharted territory for Harbaugh and a number of keys Ravens. Only six players — Lewis, Suggs, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Jarret Johnson, and Sam Koch — remain from the last Baltimore team to beat Roethlisberger back in 2006.
The playoffs may be four months away, but the same intensity and urgency is there.
“The stakes are the same,” Suggs said. “The stakes are always the same. In this game, it always comes back to this game between the two teams. You can tell that has been the difference between where we have played them in the postseason. The stakes are always the same.”
The stakes might be the same, but the Ravens can only hope the results are different this time.