Steelers vs. Ravens for AFC supremacy: Get used to it

The Baltimore Sun

Is this the changing of the guard, or is this just an aberration?

Only time will tell. But the signs are pointing toward either the Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers - or both - being the teams to beat in the NFL in the foreseeable future. In other words, tomorrow won't be the last time these two teams play for the AFC championship, or are the ones others have to go through to get there.

Kind of how the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have been. At this rate, based on what has happened this month, those two - the league's marquee teams and the ones in the spotlight at the beginning of nearly every postseason this decade - are becoming the pursuers instead of the pursued.

That the Ravens and Steelers are in the same division, and that everybody now recognizes the heat and history of their rivalry, is a bonus. That's what gave postseason clashes among the likes of the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in past decades extra juice - it was not just about divisional supremacy, but also about the biggest prize of all. In that same vein, we should all expect future regular-season clashes to capture the nation's attention and imagination just as did the faceoffs between ... well, the Colts and Patriots.

This isn't just about the makeup of the Ravens and Steelers and the recipes they've followed for long-term success, with young head coaches and young quarterbacks in place. It also is about the body blows - actually, head shots - suffered by the Colts and Patriots on back-to-back days this week. On Monday, Tony Dungy retired as head coach of the Colts; on Tuesday, executive Scott Pioli left the Patriots to run the Kansas City Chiefs.

That's a massive brain drain for both franchises. It's also a test of their strength. The Colts are certain they've gotten it right, having created a chain of succession long before. With the Patriots, it's not readily obvious that they had a plan in place in case Pioli left - or who deserved most of the credit between him and the head coach. The respective hot seats are occupied by Bill Belichick and Bill Polian.

As the Patriots and Colts make their transitions, wear and tear eats at key areas. Peyton Manning isn't old, but injuries wore down the defense and Marvin Harrison seemed to age overnight. Tom Brady isn't old, either, but by all accounts, his post-surgical knee is about a decade older now than it was before his opening-day injury; meanwhile, his defense is hardly bubbling over with youth.

Again, this could all be premature. These teams roiling with upheaval were both 11-5 this season and are likely still wondering why they're home this weekend. They've set the bar high: The Patriots or Colts were in the AFC title game five times in the previous seven years, twice against each other. Once (in 2004) they played each other in the second round.

Most important, the winner of those three playoff meetings subsequently won the Super Bowl, and between them they got four Lombardi trophies.

When they met in the 2007 regular season, when both were undefeated, it blew the top off the hype-meter, then lived up to it. The Ravens and Steelers get to do that twice a year. At this rate, you might be able to pencil in a third meeting every January, with the whole football world watching.

Including the deposed (for now) royalty in New England and Indianapolis.

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

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