Redskins' fans should root for Ravens

The most thrilling Redskins season in 20 years is done, giving way to another brutal January of watching other NFL teams fight their way to the Super Bowl. But up I-95 is another team worthy of your cheers - and not just because of some namby-pamby idea of regional pride.

The reason Washington fans should root for the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 is because they share some of the finest qualities of the Redskins teams many of us knew and loved in a decade-long run when Washington played in four Super Bowls and won three of them.

Some parallels are obvious: gritty defense, soft-spoken but shrewd head coach, underrated quarterback(s) craving validation on the biggest stage. Yet more deeply, what distinguished those Redskins was the way they played together. They were never the flashiest teams, with the brightest stars or even the most talent. Instead, they played over their heads in the biggest games. Those Redskins were great because they were more than the sum of their parts - just like today's Ravens.

Compared with most Washingtonians, that's easy for me to say. I'm a Ravens fan whose fondness for the Redskins has cooled over the years. But I recall enough of the joys of watching John Riggins blast through the line or Darrell Green swat away a pass to know that the Ravens can offer similar thrills for those looking for a pleasant diversion while RGIII's knee heals.

So put down your burgundy-and-gold pompoms and your rubber pig snout, and consider embracing the Squirrel Dance,the Flacco Fling and Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice Up the Middle. Hop on the purple-and-black bandwagon for the final leg of a miraculous Super Bowl run.

I don't have anything against the 49ers. San Francisco is a lovely place, with all kinds of good Northern California karma and high-tech wonders, while Baltimore is, well, still Baltimore. But Baltimore is a terrific football town - loud and proud, with the scars to show for it.

The son of divorced parents, I spent a fair chunk of my childhood shuttling between the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, growing up as an avid fan of the Orioles and the Redskins, especially after 1984, when the Colts stole away to Indianapolis in those cursed Mayflower moving trucks.

When I moved to Washington as an adult, I pondered my fandom fairly seriously. The revolving-door leadership of the Redskins under Dan Snyder, combined with my newfound discomfort over the name and logo, made the team harder to embrace. The Redskins of the original Joe Gibbs era were a distant memory.

The Ravens, by contrast, were a smart, well-led organization with an appealing group of players and a name inspired by - of all things! - a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

Happily, the Ravens rewarded my loyalty by winning an awful lot of games. But true devotion is forged in the crucible of suffering, such as last year's crushing last-second loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game(nearly as painful as the Redskins loss in Super Bowl XVIII, when the Screen Pass From Hell doomed the team before halftime even arrived).

More recently, all you Redskins fans may recall that your overtime triumph on Dec. 9 was the Ravens' overtime disaster, followed quickly by the firing of the team's offensive coordinator and an even more disastrous loss the next week to the Denver Broncos.

So we had a late-season losing streak and chaos among the coaching staff (that should feel familiar to Skins fans, too). To make matters worse, it seemed that the Ravens' long run of excellence was nearing its end, with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and other defensive cornerstones aging fast. And the perpetual questions about quarterback Joe Flacco - would he finally come through in the biggest games? - hung in the air.

The implausible resurgence that followed, capped by a sweet-revenge victory over the Patriots in this year's AFC championship game, showed how an imperfect group of players could fuse into a unified force capable of beating more glamorous teams. Just like the Redskins once were - and may soon be again.

These are the kinds of teams I enjoy most, no matter where they're from, but it's easier to see it happening when you're watching closely. So for all of you who have spent the past few weeks trying to understand the difference between an anterior cruciate ligament and a lateral collateral ligament, here's a quick guide to how your new second-favorite team resembles the Redskins of old:

Coach: John Harbaugh is the Ravens' Joe Gibbs, typically restrained in public comments (unlike his hot-headed younger brother, Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the 49ers). He gets maximum effort from players while keeping the spotlight as much as possible on them and doling out the occasional Bible verse.

Quarterback: Flacco is the Ravens' Joe Theismann, not yet as good as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning (or Dan Marino or Joe Montana) but much better than fans of other teams appreciate. Theismann had better feet, Flacco has a better arm.

Receiver: Anquan Boldin is the Ravens' Art Monk, fearless and smart, always seeming to find the first-down marker. Look for him when the game is on the line. If Boldin can't be found, there's always the Ravens' Torrey Smith playing the part of Gary Clark, getting open deep.

Running back: Ray Rice is the Ravens' John Riggins, except half the size, with a totally different running style and a much more restrained public manner. Okay, Rice is nothing like Riggins, except both are great.

Pass rusher: Terrell Suggs is the Ravens' Dexter Manley, big, fast and destructive with a knack for evocative quotes and occasional (if very different) legal issues.

Pass defender: Ed Reed is the Ravens' Darrell Green. Sure, Green was a cornerback and Reed is a safety, but they both are game-changers, among the best ever at their positions. Quarterbacks start each play by figuring out where Reed is.

Linebacker: Ray Lewis is the Ravens' Sam Huff? Or their London Fletcher? Okay, the Redskins have never had a Lewis, but few have. His legacy, of course, will always be tarnished by that terrible night in Atlanta more than a decade ago, when two men died. Yet, whatever his role - prosecutors dropped the murder charge in a plea deal, focusing instead on two of Lewsis's associates - it's clear that this harrowing brush with the law prompted Lewis to dedicate himself to becoming a better man. Anyone who believes in redemption should be able to cheer for Lewis as his career comes to a close.

In the end, this is less about individual similarities than about heart. Those Redskins had it; these Ravens do, too. Plus, Washington fans, you need a team to root for, and the Ravens - perpetually sold short by the blow-dried sports analysts on television - could use some more support. This team is worthy. Join the fun.

Your rubber pig snout will still be there, waiting for you, after the Super Bowl.