DISCUSSING the possibilities by which the Ravens can either make the playoffs this season or beat the Steelers today, or both, inevitably reduces one to grasping at straws. And there aren't very many straws at which to grasp anymore.
Laugh if you want. Dispute Suggs' premise (one he has repeated throughout the latter part of the season), that the Ravens are the only team to beat the Steelers this season. Dismiss it because that meeting took place 14 weeks ago and was the last game that Ben Roethlisberger did not start. But would you be laughing any harder at that than you were at the suggestion that the Patriots would lose to the Dolphins?
That upset was as unthinkable as the possibility that the Eagles' Superman, Terrell Owens, would discover his own kryptonite against the Cowboys. Both unexpected happenings took place in games with similar overtones: one win to go against a traditional yet overwhelmed rival to smooth the path to a Super Bowl. Take out the "overwhelmed" part - or maybe not, the way the two records compare - and see if it relates to a certain game in Pittsburgh today.
The Ravens flipping the script on the Steelers would hardly be the strangest thing that has happened this season, in the NFL or with the Ravens. That counts in the Ravens' favor, because they, like most of the teams still alive in the AFC playoff picture, need a string of strange occurrences to get themselves exactly where they want to be.
The reward for a Steelers win is home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. To get to this point, they have beaten back every conceivable challenge. They've also survived the type of scare the Patriots couldn't, holding off the Giants in East Rutherford last weekend. That should have been their wake-up call. They should not have to dig too deep for extra incentive for today.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are going to be desperate. They're going to bring the confidence they normally tote around, plus the extra dose that comes from thinking they have the Steelers' number. They should have some swagger left over from having more or less controlled Peyton Manning last week in Indianapolis, even if they couldn't finish the job. On top of that, they still believe that the magic they were able to call upon in 2000, under similar circumstances down the stretch, is within their reach this year. They've clung to that belief all season.
The problem with all of this, though, is the fact of the Ravens' actual performance down the stretch this season. Had they really come through in the fashion of their Super Bowl predecessors, whose spirit they've invoked at least once since training camp, they would not be hitting town with three losses in their past four games. Winning in November and December had become a given for this team. So had shutting the door on teams in the fourth quarter, holding onto double-digit leads and smoking opponents at M&T; Bank Stadium.
They've faltered badly in all those instances lately. No one outside that locker room - or inside it, for that matter - can assume anything about what the Ravens can bring every Sunday. They've long known what the challenge would be in the final weeks of this season. But they've failed to capitalize on opportunities at New England and at Indianapolis, and they gave away a home game to Cincinnati in which they led big in the final quarter.
Those games haunt them now. Instead of the drama building the last two months for a penultimate rematch with the Steelers for the AFC North title and prime playoff positioning, this game stumbles into view with far less marquee value. It still stirs some feelings common to a rivalry like this, and no doubt Joey Porter will be as convenient a villain as he always has been. Plus, it would be a source of pride for the Ravens' defense to deal Roethlisberger his first pro loss at a wholly inconvenient time - and to do it while its leader, Ray Lewis, is playing banged up.
Overriding it all, however, is the Steelers' ability to lead their own coronation, their destiny in their hands. The Ravens lost that privilege long ago, saw the Steelers zoom past them in the fast lane, and are left to hope that everybody loses now and next week - and if that's an exaggeration of the tiebreaking procedures among the other three wild-card contenders, it's not much of one. No, they're not automatically out if they lose today, but they can dodge fate only so many times in this short a span.
The Ravens are almost out of straws to grasp. Then again, you never know - that kryptonite one might actually work.