Hines Ward has always been the perfect villain for Ravens fans.

He has made a ton of big catches against their team. He has laid out a couple of their players with sneaky crack-back blocks that occasionally straddle the line between legal and "Will the defendant please rise?"

And he's always flashing that irritating megawatt smile, even when he gets blown up over the middle by someone like Ray Lewis or Ed Reed.

Now, just in time for Sunday's brawl between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T; Bank Stadium, guess who has been voted the dirtiest player in the NFL?

Yes, it's ol' Smiley himself, who pulled down the honor in a poll of 296 players taken by Sports Illustrated this month.

If you're scoring at home, Ward finished well ahead of such other alleged cheap-shot artists as Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, Cincinnati Bengals safety Roy Williams and Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae.

As you might imagine, given his villain status, Ward is not exactly hiding his face in shame over the SI poll.

"I consider it an honor," he said during a conference call Wednesday. "I mean, what other wide receiver in history has been voted the dirtiest player in the league?"

Being called a dirty player is nothing new for Ward, of course.

The guy has been in the league for 12 years. And his affinity for delivering big hits to defensive players looking the other way is well known.

Last season, for instance, he was fined $15,000 for questionable hits that failed to draw penalty flags in consecutive games.

And he took out Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers with a crushing block that broke Rivers' jaw, ended his season - and again didn't draw a penalty.

"That's what he's known for," Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe told SI. "He's a blind-side guy."

Think Ndukwe hurt Ward's feelings with that one?

Think Ward went around whining, "Gee, how come they're always saying nasty things about me?"

Are you kidding?

This guy loves playing the professional villain.

All he's missing is a black top hat, waxed mustache and a whimpering maiden tied to the train tracks.

Oh, he realizes the SI poll isn't the sort of thing where you run home to the wife and kids and shout: "Hey, let's celebrate! Guess who was just named dirtiest player in the league?"

But he also seems to feel it's much ado about nothing, given the violent nature of his line of work.

"I don't want people who don't know football and the first thing they read is 'the dirtiest player' and [have] a misconception of me personally as a human being," he said.

"Dirtiest player? I know what I mean to my ballclub and my teammates. I'm just trying to win."

See, that's the thing about the NFL: One team's dirty player is another team's gritty winner.

And the truth is, there's not a Ravens fan around - well, not one with a brain, anyway - who wouldn't want to have Hines Ward suiting up for the Ravens.

At 33, the guy is still a terrific wide receiver.

In the Steelers' shocking 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, he finished with a season-high 10 catches for 128 yards.

It was the 24th 100-yard receiving game of his career, which puts him one behind Hall of Famer John Stallworth for the most in Steelers history.

His 77 touchdown catches are the most in team history. And he has caught a pass in 172 consecutive games, a team record that he hopes to extend Sunday night against the Ravens.

During Wednesday's conference call, you could almost hear Ward imagining what that game will be like: a roaring crowd at sold-out M&T; Bank Stadium, a national TV audience, two arch-rivals jacked up beyond belief, the 6-4 Steelers looking to bounce back after two straight losses, the 5-5 Ravens desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.

"Every time I go across the middle, these guys aren't going to tackle me softly," he said. "They're going to try to rip my head off. Why should I wait around for that to happen?"

The fact is, he probably won't.

He'll be looking to lay some hits of his own on the Ravens. And the crowd will boo and taunt him every time he makes a play - or doesn't.

He's a villain in this town.

That doesn't change.

Not as long as he wears the black and gold.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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