The Baltimore Sun

PITTSBURGH - In Pittsburgh, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward is known for his beaming smile.

In Baltimore, he's despised for his wise-guy smirk.

In Pittsburgh, Ward is admired for always playing the game hard.

In Baltimore, he's criticized for taking cheap shots.

In Pittsburgh, the fans love Hines Ward.

In Baltimore, well, they don't.

"But I love Baltimore, why would they dislike me?" Ward said smiling and/or smirking yesterday. "I love the crab cakes there."

"It's a big honor, I guess," he continued about the distinction of being a player Ravens fans love to hate. "I'm just playing football; I don't know why a whole city would dislike me. Maybe I smile too much and they don't like that I'm happy all the time.

"For me, I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to win a ballgame, and Baltimore has been our rival for years. There's just something about Baltimore where you want to get up and give it all you've got. And if the city of Baltimore is mad at me for doing that, then I'm sorry to the city of Baltimore."

However, don't expect that sort-of apology as a sign that Ward, 32, has any intention of easing up on the furious way he takes on Ravens defenders in Sunday's AFC championship game at Heinz Field

Among the examples of Ward's talents was a hit he laid on Ravens safety Ed Reed in a 2007 Monday night debacle when the Steelers crushed Baltimore, 38-7. The safety was helped from the field trying to collect his wits.

Reed, who has been putting on a superstar performance this season with 11 interceptions in the regular season and playoffs, brushed aside the Ward factor yesterday.

"We just play football within the whistle and let everything else take care of itself," Reed said. "We can't get caught up in that part of the game. We know it's there, and we'll handle it as men as the game goes."

In the first meeting between the teams this season, a 23-20 Steelers win in overtime, Ward caught just two passes but one was for 49 yards. In the second game, a 13-9 Pittsburgh victory, he had eight receptions for 107 yards.

Over the course of 11 seasons, Ward has 86 catches, including six touchdowns, against the Ravens. Along the way, he has become an integral part of one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL. And, Ward said, it's not a pretend rivalry; there is genuine dislike between the teams.

"Me and Ray Lewis won't go out and eat together after the games; you can count on that," Ward said.

Still, Ward holds the Ravens in high regard as a football team. Just as the Ravens said they were rooting for the Steelers in last weekend's game against the Chargers, Ward said the Steelers were rooting for the Ravens to beat the Titans. In part, because the elimination of No. 1-seeded Tennessee meant a home game for Pittsburgh, but also because just having Baltimore as an opponent puts more of an edge on the championship game.

"It's going to be an all-out war. This game is definitely going to be a war," Ward said. "As a player, these are the games that you appreciate and want to be a part of."

"There's no helping each other up," he added later. "There's going to be a lot of trash-talking on the field. At the end of the day, it's still respect. They have some great players."

Although Ward's style might infuriate opposing teams and their fans, his all-out approach inspires teammates. Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, who has had a front-row seat the past few years for Ward's battles with opposing secondaries, said the veteran wide receiver's ferocity makes him one of Pittsburgh's leaders.

"We try to be a physical team around here, and when you have a receiver who blocks as well as he does and cares about blocking as much as he does, that sets the tone for the rest of the team," Miller said, "because as an offensive lineman or even as a tight end, you don't want a receiver blocking better than you do. So you just try to keep up with his pace."

Although Ward has won a Super Bowl with the Steelers and, in fact, was the Most Valuable Player of that game, a 21-10 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks in 2006, the Steelers had lost both previous AFC championship games they had played at Heinz Field.

Ward has bitter recollections of both those defeats to the New England Patriots, and he insisted the Steelers need to make sure that doesn't happen again Sunday - especially against the Ravens.

"I can vividly see the New England Patriots celebrating on our field as we lost the game," Ward said. "That's something that you've got to go into the whole offseason and look at the whole time. You definitely don't want to have Baltimore celebrating on our field here. I don't know how long I'll be getting over that."

Ravens (13-5) @ Steelers (13-4)

AFC title game

Sunday, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Steelers by 6

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