- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers get it on today at Heinz Field in an AFC divisional playoff battle that actually amounts to a lot more. Many observers are calling the rubber match between these two fierce rivals the real AFC Championship game, although the winner still must play the New England Patriots next week.
The top-seeded Steelers (13-3) dominated the Super Bowl defending champion Ravens 26-21 in Baltimore on Dec.16 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. The Ravens (11-6) stole a 13-10 victory in Pittsburgh on Nov.4 when Steelers kicker Kris Brown missed four field goals.
"I think [Steelers coach] Bill Cowher said it best after they beat us here," Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "He said, 'Show these guys a lot of respect because there is a good chance that you will see them again.' They knew and we knew deep down inside that we were going to have to face each other and winner takes all.
"They are healthy, and we are healthy," Sharpe said. "They have all of their guns and all of their bullets. We have all of our guns and all of our bullets. We are going to come out firing, just like we know they are going to come out firing. The best team that day is going to win, and that's all that matters."
The outcome probably will be determined by which team is able to run the ball. That favors the Steelers. With cold, frigid conditions expected today, the Steelers' league-leading ground attack averages 173.4 yards and will be bolstered by the return of star tailback Jerome Bettis, who is playing for the first time in seven weeks following a groin injury.
Bettis, who was named to his fifth Pro Bowl, is a physical, punishing back who rushed for a team-high 1,072 yards.
"First of all, our offensive line has been tremendous," Bettis said. "They've been able to pretty much control the line of scrimmage in every game that we've played. The emphasis has to be there. Even when I was out of football games, we were able to control the line of scrimmage."
The Ravens offense would like to say the same thing. Unfortunately, it can't. The sporadic play on the right side of the offensive line has made Baltimore's running game a question mark each week.
Last week, in a 20-3 demolition of the Miami Dolphins in an AFC wild-card game, the Ravens' run blocking was outstanding as the team ran for a season-high 226 yards. But in two games against the Steelers, the Ravens have gained 99 yards on 39 attempts. The Steelers have the NFL's top run defense (74.7 yards) and feature four sensational linebackers: NFL defensive rookie of the year Kendrell Bell, Pro Bowl choice Jason Gildon, the underrated Joey Porter and the underappreciated Earl Holmes.
"They are key, obviously, because they do a lot of different things," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It is something that you have to deal with. They are good enough athletes that they can be a factor when they rush you one-on-one. They are very disciplined when they drop into their zones. They are very key when you play a four-linebacker system like that, obviously."
If the Ravens find it tough going on the ground, maligned quarterback Elvis Grbac will be forced to make plays against a good secondary. Grbac has struggled in his first season with the Ravens and hasn't shown he is entirely comfortable in their intricate passing schemes. Grbac has thrown more interceptions (18) than touchdowns.
"The team that wins this game definitely has an edge going [into the AFC Championship game] because this type of game doesn't happen every week," Bettis said. "Most teams can't prepare for this type of a game. It's a battle of attrition, and basically the last man standing is going to win."

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