PITTSBURGH — The Ravens head into today's division playoff game against the Steelers carrying a simmering animosity toward their biggest rival and a growing sense of urgency spurred by their leader.
When the Ravens opened the playoffs last weekend, linebacker Ray Lewis wore his Super Bowl ring for the first time since the team won the championship a decade ago. Players in the locker room quickly went to look at it, which is what Lewis wanted, to focus everyone's attention on the ultimate goal.
"The time is right now," he said. "I want to give them a sense of what I felt before. I want to do it again with this team."
Round 3 of this grudge match between the Ravens and Steelers features higher stakes than at any point this season. The Ravens are one win from advancing to the AFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday's Patriots-Jets game. They are one loss from uncertainty.
Age, free agency and a potential lockout are as threatening to the Ravens as the Steelers' pass rushers. For these reasons, Lewis has impressed upon his teammates that they can't afford to squander chances in the playoffs like they did the past two seasons.
"We've been to the AFC championship, we've been to the divisional round, we've done everything we're supposed to do," Lewis said. "What's next for us? What's next is finish."
Lewis is one of many veterans on the Ravens who don't know how many more shots they'll have to reach the Super Bowl. The Ravens have 17 players who are 30 or older, which represents almost one-third of their roster.
"The only way teams that have a mix of veterans and younger guys advance is the younger guys understand what's on a veteran's mind and what he is playing for," wide receiver Derrick Mason said.
At 36 the oldest Raven, Mason played in his only Super Bowl 11 years ago with the Titans. It was the one in which Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped 1 yard short of scoring the tying touchdown against the Rams.
Starting center Matt Birk, 34, went to the NFC Championship Game in two of his first three seasons when he came into the league with the Vikings.
But Birk won one more playoff game over the next eight years before joining the Ravens in 2009.
The Ravens are the only team to win a playoff game the past three seasons, something Birk knows shouldn't be taken for granted.
"You can definitely shed some perspective on the situation," Birk said, "and let the younger guys know that this is not the norm."