Baltimore's purple passion

Do you sport a Fu Manchu because Joe Flacco does? Are you not only proudly wearing purple but following strict pregame rituals such as avoiding all things that smack of Texas (sorry, chili, cowboy boots, Lone Star Beer and excessive bragging)? Have you named your first-born Haloti?

Then you, my friend, are a Ravens fanatic, and your time is at hand. This Sunday marks the ultimate experience of professional football fandom for any city, the home playoff game. The Super Bowl may be bigger, but it rarely takes place anywhere close to a team's field.

Let's face it, the Baltimore football fan has gotten a little spoiled in recent years. The team's success, particularly with its perennially superb defense, has raised expectations. But when the Ravens host the Houston Texans, it will mark a watershed moment, nonetheless. On the strength of a 12-4 regular season record and a sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens earned a division title, a second seed, a first-round bye and a home playoff game for the first time under Coach John Harbaugh.

That puts the Ravens most assuredly in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. At home, the Ravens have been a perfect 8-0 this season.

We leave it to the sportswriters to dissect the matchups and the strategies and offer the critiques. On the editorial page, we are what the denizens of the toy department call "homers," breathlessly rooting for the home team without any attempt to withhold our bias.

That's not because we are incapable of observing the Ravens critically. We understand that the defense has, at least statistically, regressed a bit. The offensive line remains an uncertainty — as does the quarterback (sorry, Joe). The Texans are not unlike the Ravens — strong defensively and in their running attack. The Ravens may have beaten them during the regular season, but unlikely things can happen on a football field. Andre Johnson, the Texans' star receiver, is a dangerous weapon the Ravens didn't face last time around.

No, we mindlessly root for the home team because we're fans, darn it, and to do so beyond all sense of reason and rationality is why we love the sport and all its excesses. How else can you explain purple face paint, man-caves lined with Ravens collectibles and flat-screen TVs or buying little kids authentic $120 replica jerseys?

Crazy? Hey, we passed crazy back when the General Assembly approved public financing of what eventually became a $220 million football stadium in downtown Baltimore 16 years ago. But who regrets the decision now? Only the flintiest, most hard-hearted non-sports fans among us.

Certainly, we could give you a song and dance about tourism dollars, about the millions hotels, bars and restaurants will take in this weekend from free-spending NFL fans. We could quote the computer models others have trotted out in the past to justify the expense on the ground of economic development. Or even fall back on that public relations angle — Baltimore will be on the lips of every sportscast and news publication from ESPN to Eastern Europe.

But that wouldn't tell the whole story. The success of the Ravens gives this city an identity, a collective purpose, a collective religion. Even before the opening kick-off, we are a community focused on rooting for our team, our players, our family. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, we stand together — at least for a time.

We can't pretend that the outcome of an NFL game amounts to all that much in the real world. It is just a game played for profit by mercenaries on teams owned by people with even heftier bank accounts. No matter what happens on Sunday, we will face on Monday the same ordinary travails we set aside beforehand. Too many in this city will be poor and unemployed, schools and crime will still be of concern, and crabs will still be out of season.

But for a few hours, how much richer our lives will be for the opportunity to cheer, to scream, to dance and shout — whether from a seat at M&T Bank Stadium or in our own living rooms — for the Ravens, Baltimore's hometown team. As a famous football coach once observed, winning isn't everything but it sure beats anything that comes in second. Let's send those chili-eating, boot-wearing, Lone Star-drinking braggarts back where they came from.

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