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.
In this case, Baltimore's Scott is Bednarik and Pittsburgh's Hines Ward is Gifford. Except Ward has this habit of blocking high and hard and knocking guys out like Mike Tyson.
Scott, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said of Ward: "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."
So Scott, among others, has it out for Ward. And linebacker Terrell Suggs said during a radio interview the Ravens had a bounty out on Ward and Mendenhall. For his part, Ward told Tony Kornheiser and me on Thursday on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" he hadn't bathed or brushed his teeth all week because he didn't want any Baltimore guys to even want to come near him, much less cover him.
What seems clear, and perhaps the only thing you can count on tomorrow, is that the talking won't stop and neither will the hitting.
The Ravens might have the two most dynamic defensive players in the game, the aforementioned Lewis and safety Ed Reed, who is elbowing his way into the discussion of best-ever at his position.
That said, Pittsburgh's defense, at least statistically, is better.
The Steelers -- and this rarely happens -- are ranked No. 1 in passing defense, total defense and points allowed. They're as difficult to move the ball against (if not more so) than the Steel Curtain of the 1970s.
And therein lies the glamour of this game. Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback who has the mentality and toughness of the team's linebackers, might well make the decisive play, as he has in so many fourth quarters. In fact, the Steelers' formula this year has been to play it close, ride the defense and let Big Ben draw up something in the dirt late.
That's the expectation here, that the Steelers will do to the Ravens what they've done twice in the regular season, which is to say win by a hair. But in the 50 or so minutes leading up to that, the Ravens and Steelers very likely will treat people to old-fashioned football, football before telestrators, before games on Monday night, before quarterbacks were exempted from tackles around the knees and blows to the head.
Ravens-Steelers is what some of us see not only as old-fashioned football, but real football, the way it should be more frequently allowed to be.