With way playoffs have gone, Ravens' days of being underdogs over

The Baltimore Sun

At the very moment the Ravens are continuing one of the two greatest runs in their history, the team and the city it represents are on the verge of losing - if they have not already lost - something near and dear to their hearts.

Their underdog status.

Never mind the point spread for Sunday's AFC championship game (the Vegas line last night, for entertainment purposes only, made the host Pittsburgh Steelers a five-point favorite), the site of the game, the fact that the Steelers have already beaten the Ravens twice, and the seeding. Much of America, if it isn't on the Ravens' bandwagon, is fighting for space on it as if it's the last light rail out of Camden Yards after an Orioles game.

Seedings no longer matter in the NFL playoffs, it's obvious now. The Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, a couple of nine-win teams in the regular season, are the last two standing in the NFC. The sixth-seeded Ravens have knocked out two division champs, seeded Nos. 3 and 1. For once, the cliches about this being a new season and throwing the records out the window actually apply.

Which team is playing better? Which is more impressive? Which has "it"? The Ravens, a whole bunch of people are answering, and justifiably so.

Much of the talk among the Ravens' faithful leading up to Saturday's game at Tennessee centered on how nobody believed in the Ravens, how nobody thought they would get this far, how nobody figured they would beat the top-seeded Titans. Not a surprise, because widely perceived disrespect is like a crab cake to this city - we eat it up wherever we can find it and never stop searching all over for more.

The truth, however, is that as game time approached, a consensus of national prognosticators backed the Ravens. And they were right.

To admit that, though, would go against the nature of this city and the teams it adores and nurtures, going back decades. After all, what was the remembrance of "The Greatest Game Ever Played" other than a celebration of the day Baltimore shut New York up and showed America it was all wrong about this town?

Actually, the Ravens' players for the most part have not bought in to the theory that everyone is against them. That was a bad trait of last season's 5-11 team: excuses and conspiracy theories. These Ravens, as a whole, have found other fuel, and whatever they've found has worked.

But it would be hard for them to try to tap that line now if they wanted to. And nobody, inside or outside the team, had better try the refs-don't-want-us-here argument, the way it was after the Santonio Holmes touchdown call at M&T; Bank Stadium last month. Not after the gift of the Todd Heap third-down catch during the game-winning drive Saturday, after the play clock had clearly expired.

Seeing a team charge from the wild-card spot is no longer a shock. Two of the toughest games the Steelers have played this season were against the Ravens. Only a lunatic would count out a team with this defense, and the rookie quarterback and rookie head coach have done everything possible to negate their lack of experience. Plus, the Ravens are last season's New England Patriots compared with the twin rags-to-riches stories in the NFC.

Thus, can anyone seriously position these Ravens as an obvious underdog Sunday in Pittsburgh - or beyond?

And if not, can the city of Baltimore live with it? Can it handle being the favorites, the one America believes in, the one everybody expects to win?

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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