Today, however, the stakes are different, and they will be long into the foreseeable future. The Ravens are no longer the surprise contenders. They're not flying under the radar. They're not the underdogs ("The first time in 16 weeks, huh?" Terrell Suggs cracked last week).
The Ravens are beyond all that: They are prohibitive favorites to whomp on the Jacksonville Jaguars this afternoon at M&T; Bank Stadium and are considered a virtual lock to clinch the last wild-card spot. The last few AFC stragglers are sweating out their results, not the other way around.
In fact, the city is looking past the Jaguars, even if the players aren't. Fans have discussed everything from "What's the best first-round matchup?" to "You know the Super Bowl's back in Tampa, don't you, just like in '01?"
Bye-bye, pressure of low (or no) expectations. Hello, pressure of high expectations. The kind of which if the Ravens manage to lose today and miss the playoffs, they won't be getting condolences from the faithful, cries of go get 'em next time.
They'll get shouts of, "You blew it! What happened?"
This is the world the Ravens have created, and, to their credit, they were more than happy to do it. As a whole, with very few public exceptions, they were blissfully unaware of what the outside world thought of them for this season. They never bought into the idea that they should have been a four- or five-win team, no matter how sound the reasoning behind the predictions.
The new head coach, John Harbaugh, never set the bar that low. The rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, never believed he had too steep a learning curve (in fact, he said more than once that he wholeheartedly believed he would learn more by playing, not by holding a clipboard for a year). The veterans never sighed and resigned themselves to a rebuilding season. When public sentiment leaned toward a finish near the bottom, they never even put much effort into the "everybody's-against-us" motivational strategy.
As much as anything else, that attitude explains why they rolled through all the obstacles they did this season, leading to this climactic moment.
But they should not doubt for a moment that they won't have a brand-new public consensus to tune out. They might be one win away from hearing "Super Bowl or bust." Two wins, and they'll hear it 24-7 until their season ends, wherever and whenever that will be.
For good reason. These Ravens have raised expectations that high. They've proved over the course of this season that the thinnest of margins separates them from the AFC teams above them. Tennessee? A three-point loss at home in Week 5, aided by a lousy call. Pittsburgh? Let's not even go there. Whoever wins the East and West? Please.
Indianapolis? Uhhhh ... well, anyway ...
Fans and other followers are entitled to impose those standards on this team and discard the previous ones. No longer can they be judged by what happened last season or by what they thought would happen last summer.
A playoff berth is the Ravens' for the taking, and the Super Bowl is off in the distance but hardly out of sight. "Nice job, guys, considering we all thought you'd stink this year" doesn't cut it anymore.
Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).
* Caught ESPN's production of The Greatest Game Ever Played, and I've got to admit, that game actually was great.
* Plus, the input from current Indianapolis Colts figures wasn't as blasphemous as it has been made out to be. These are the direct descendants, after all, not the Ravens. What are you going to do?
* Good seats still available for the Humanitarian Bowl, it seems. Well, "good" is sort of a relative term.
* Poor, martyred Rod Marinelli, bravely standing up for his daughter while commandeering the worst season in NFL history, earns induction into the "Let's Change the Subject" Hall of Fame, waiving the five-year waiting period.
* The Orioles miss their chance to spend $140 million to sign one local star but make a way-overdue excursion into scouting Asian players. Not a bad trade-off at all.