OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Drive along a winding, hilly road in this pastoral community 20 miles outside Baltimore and you suddenly find yourself in the heart of Ravens country.
Through the clusters of trees, a sprawling stone and brick building comes into view. It is set far off the road and looks much more like a modern country estate than a football team's headquarters and training complex.
But then you notice the name of the street sign by the entrance — Winning Drive, which seems especially appropriate given how the Ravens and their remarkable rookie quarterback defeated the top-seeded Titans 13-10 in the AFC division round.
Inside a rustic lobby, with the feel of an old Maryland inn, flames flicker in the oversized fireplace — another fitting touch. It mirrors the fire burning inside the coaches and players as they prepare to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday with a trip to Super Bowl XLIII at stake.
The fact is, there isn't a Raven in the building this week who wouldn't want to face Pittsburgh with the AFC title up for grabs. There is no love lost between the bitter North Division rivals. And since the Steelers won both bruising, hard-fought games during the regular season, the Ravens view this matchup as the most meaningful way to punch their ticket to Tampa.
"We wouldn't really want it any other way," said Joe Flacco, whose poised play as a new quarterback has been one reason for Baltimore's success. "This will be a lot of fun to go up there and play them for the third time this season. The first two games have been battles, and we're ready to go up there and try to get a win in the most important of 'em."
"It's the perfect situation," echoed sixth-year linebacker Jarret Johnson. "Maybe there are guys who would rather go to San Diego, where it's warm and all that stuff. But that wouldn't have made this right. It's the perfect situation: going to Pittsburgh, going through the team that's beaten you twice, your division rival. You can't write a better story than this."
A showdown between the No. 1 defense in the NFL, Pittsburgh, and the No. 2, Baltimore; between old-school teams that appear genuinely not to like each other. "There's a lot of dislike between the Ravens and Steelers," former Baltimore tight end and CBS commentator Shannon Sharpe said several months ago. "This is the Hatfields and McCoys."
The Steelers lead the overall series 16-10, with a 1-0 edge in the postseason and 10 games decided by six points or fewer.
In the first meeting this season, Sept. 29, a Monday night game in Pittsburgh, the Ravens fell 23-20 in overtime. They led 13-3 at half, fell behind 20-13, mounted a late drive to force overtime but lost on Jeff Reed's 46-yard field goal.
In the rematch Dec. 14 in Baltimore, the Ravens led 9-3 going into the fourth quarter but lost 13-9 in the final minute. The Steelers drove 92 yards in 12 plays and scored on a controversial call with 43 seconds left. Officials ruled that Santonio Holmes did not cross the goal line on a third-down pass play from the 4, but after replay review, it was ruled a touchdown.
"You never want to lose two games," fourth-year safety Jim Leonhard said. "But sometimes I think you have to have those losses in order to grow. And I think we've learned from those games."
Derrick Mason was hoping the Ravens would get another shot at the Steelers after the second loss. "We knew if we continued to play the way we were capable of playing that we would get an opportunity — just be patient," the 12th-year receiver said. "And now the opportunity is here. We've just got to take full advantage of it."
"If you wanted to go to the Super Bowl, who else would you rather it be but the Pittsburgh Steelers," seventh-year linebacker Bart Scott added. "… Somebody's going to be happy. Somebody's going to be hurt. What other team would you rather do it to (than Pittsburgh)?"
Nobody knows the Steelers better than the face of Baltimore's defense, All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, part of the Ravens team that won Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa eight years ago.
"I've been playing these guys for years now," he said. "… We know each other very well on both sides of the ball. Those guys are extremely disciplined in the things they do. We are kind of similar but different at the same time, so there's no trick to it. It's just line up and play."
Against the one team the Ravens wanted.