Michael Wilbon: AFC Title Game Is Going to Hurt

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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 17, 2009

No amount of scrubbing can sanitize the AFC championship game.

There's nothing the NFL can do to get the Ravens and Steelers to be nice to each other tomorrow in Pittsburgh. There's no good will to be fostered. The title game isn't going to be about the West Coast offense or fancy passing or any of the things the NFL loves to promote. It will be about grown men, some of the fiercest in the game today, trying to knock the opponent's head off, to hurt one another. Men will be helped off the field, if not carried.

And that's the way it should be. Steelers-Ravens goes to the very heart of pro football, the way it was played for close to 80 years, before the league decided quarterbacks were sacred cows and defense was the evil thing that kept down scores and television ratings.

Steelers-Ravens, I'm quite sure, is something that would make very proud gentlemen named "Night Train," Lipscomb, Nitschke, Huff, Deacon, Butkus, Atkinson, Taylor, Blount and Lott. And for that matter, Halas and Lombardi.

A reader who is as excited about this game as I am wrote earlier in the week to say Steelers-Ravens should be played in the Roman Coliseum.

This AFC championship, even the pregame chatter about it, isn't rated PG. It's NC-17 at the very least. Let the kids watch something happy . . . like the NFC championship game. There will be violence, offensive language, gore and very adult situations, like anytime there's a scrum over a loose football.

The discussion of football has become fraudulently polite in recent years. The conversation is littered with stuff about 2-deep zones and zone blitzes and rarely deals with men squaring up to break somebody's shoulder with a ferocious hit, which is exactly what the Ravens' Ray Lewis did to Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall back in late September. The league, the TV heads and, yes, the newspaper, don't want to talk about the violence, lest it seems like we're celebrating it.

Yet, that's exactly the allure of professional football and one of the pillars on which the league was built: violence and the explicit threat of violence.

Don't get me wrong, I understand it. Violence has grown distasteful.

And practically speaking, violence in this day and age, given the size and speed of the players, the things they put in their bodies that make them as hard as concrete and the nature of the sport, can lead to a depleted work force. The NFL, rightfully, is trying to protect the players from one another, though the quarterback more than anybody on the other side of the ball.

Still, some of us prefer throwback football. And that includes, apparently, the Steelers and Ravens. Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott said: "We were kind of hoping for it. . . . It's an opportunity for one of our organizations to really build up the level of hatred. "

It's not trash-talking, as much as it is an honest assessment, the way it used to be when Chuck Bednarik's Eagles played Frank Gifford's Giants. I'm not suggesting one man needs to be hospitalized for months the way Gifford was back in the day; I'm just staying this is still the reality of professional football, even if everybody acts as if it isn't.


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