PITTSBURGH — The road to the Super Bowl has been an express lane to victory for the Baltimore Ravens, one in which no stop is a final stop and every field becomes their home field.
Even now, heading into today's game at Pittsburgh against the top-seeded Steelers, who have the NFL's No. 1 defense, the Ravens feel neither trepidation nor nagging fear of defeat.
After all, the Ravens faced this very scenario last season in the AFC playoffs at Tennessee and won, and they were the only visiting team to win in Pittsburgh in Heinz Field's inaugural season. They are 4-0 in the playoffs away from PSINet Stadium the last two seasons.
"What no one thinks is we can get it done playing on the road, winning on the road, getting back to the Super Bowl," safety Rod Woodson said. "We can see it, feel it, smell it."
The Ravens (11-6) might be a wild-card team but, in their minds, they are the team to beat.
The Steelers (13-3) think they are the team to beat the Ravens.
It's not just because they have a better record, the advantage of playing in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums and the confidence they've built over the course of an impressive season.
The Steelers look at the Ravens' No. 2-ranked defense, hailed a year ago as one of the best in NFL history, and think theirs is better. They look at the Ravens' offense, one that has become conservative and run-oriented, and think theirs is better, too.
They look at the confidence-spewing Ravens, who talk a good game and play a better one, and they see a team they would hate to lose to--a team that, safety Lee Flowers said, they feel hatred for.
"They are the world champs and they know how to play in the playoffs and their defense is winning games, but they've got to prove that [today]," Flowers said. "You can't sit around and tell us how good you are, you've got to show me how good you are."
Both sides did lots of talking early in the week, but talk only goes so far when the Super Bowl is two victories away--and the defending Super Bowl champion is the opponent.
"The experience they have, the road games, the hostile environments--they're proven," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said. "You've got to beat the champ to become the champ. They're coming in confident, knowing they can win and we've got to go out there and prove we can beat them."
If Bettis runs as he did while averaging nearly 100 yards per game for 11 games before injuring his groin, the Steelers might do exactly that.
But he hasn't played since Dec. 2 and he hasn't had a 100-yard game against Baltimore since 1997. He came close with 91 yards in the Ravens' 13-10 victory at Heinz Field on Nov. 4.
The Steelers dominated that game statistically, only to lose when Kris Brown missed four field-goal attempts.
Baltimore wouldn't have made it back to the playoffs if it hadn't won that game.
"Quite honestly, that game feels like it was three lifetimes ago," Raven Coach Brian Billick said. "It's about this game and these circumstances. We've been down that road before."
So have the Steelers. This is the third time under Coach Bill Cowher they've held home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they didn't get to the Super Bowl in the 1992 and 1994 seasons. Only one of the last seven top-seeded AFC teams--the 1998 Broncos--reached the Super Bowl.
The 1997 Steelers couldn't get there despite playing the AFC title game at home, losing to Denver, 24-21, when Kordell Stewart had three passes intercepted.
Of course, the Ravens would prefer to see that Stewart rather than the confident and error-free Stewart who threw for 569 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Steelers out-gained the Ravens 824-390 in their two regular-season games. The Steelers won, 26-21, at Baltimore on Dec. 16.
"I guess I get up for the old Baltimore Ravens," said Stewart, who made the Pro Bowl, "so I guess it's a great thing we're playing them now."
Or maybe not.
The Raven defense has allowed 26 points in five playoff games the last two seasons, including a 20-3 victory in Miami last weekend.
Star linebacker Ray Lewis said the Ravens' defense can play a level above the regular season when it counts, something the Steelers' defense--with eight new starters since it last made the postseason--has yet to do.
"But we don't have any fear of Baltimore," Steeler tackle Wayne Gandy said. "We don't have any fear of any team."