For players, AFC championship the 'epitome' of where they want to be

For the fans, Sunday's AFC title game between the Ravens and New England Patriots is just another step to the Super Bowl. But those who have played in a conference championship for Baltimore say that, psychologically, the game means much, much more.

"You've reached a point where you're right at the epitome of what you want — the Super Bowl," Tom Matte said. "Lose the conference title and your season ends abruptly. You're dead in the water. You go home.

"That's why this week's is the ultimate game, the most important one of the season, the game that requires more mental preparation than even the Super Bowl. If you lose the Super Bowl, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you got there."

Of the five modern-era conference championship games — those leading to a world title game — in which Baltimore teams have played, Matte, 71, starred in the first. In the 1968 NFL title game — then the last step before the Super Bowl — the Colts halfback scored three touchdowns in a 34-0 rout of Cleveland, before collapsing in the winners' locker room.

The victory still resonates with fans and the players, who avenged a 27-0 loss to the Browns in the 1964 NFLchampionship.

"We just ran Cleveland off the field," said Fred Miller, the Colts' defensive captain who received the game ball that day. "I remember going into the huddle beside (linebacker) Mike Curtis, who'd had the nails torn off two of his fingers. The blood was dripping on my shoes."

Curtis glanced at his fingers, then at Miller.

"You ain't goin' nowhere," Miller growled. "It's only third down."

Such is the mind set that drives players in the penultimate playoff game.

"You're sky-high for the (conference championship) to make sure you'll be a Super Bowl team," said Dan Sullivan, the Colts' All-Pro guard who played in three such games. "You don't go into it thinking, 'I'll give 80 percent today and then work harder for the Super Bowl,' because there is no tomorrow."

Of course, those in the moment don't necessarily stop to reflect on the importance of the game. That often comes with the added perspective of years passing.

Defeating New England on Sunday "would mean a lot, but it's not the ultimate goal," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said. "You're not going to win something like that and just stop. You're not going to say, 'That's enough, we don't expect to go any further.'

"In hockey, they don't touch the (conference) trophy, right? It's bad luck to touch the trophy. I don't think we have that superstition in football, but we're going to be proud of that trophy, if we can manage (to win it)."

While in Baltimore, the Colts won two of the three conference title games in which they played; the Ravens are 1-1. All but one of the contests have been on the road. In the 1970 postseason, the Colts defeated Oakland, 27-17 at icy Memorial Stadium before 56,000 jubilant fans anxious to erase the stigma of their team having lost Super Bowl III two years before.

If the Colts needed more incentive, "we learned before the game that the Raiders had brought all of their belongings with them, in anticipation of going straight to the Super Bowl," said Bob Vogel, the Colts' All-Pro tackle. "Usually, in the postseason, your [competitive] juices are squirting around anyway, but that thought just sweetened the pot."

As the game wore on, "people started screaming and hollering, 'We're going to the Super Bowl! Five [V] is alive!" said Charlene Miller, wife of the Colts' captain who sat in the stands. "The whole stadium shook; it was like a wave that you could feel under your feet."

Afterward, fans charged onto the field in celebration.

"I saw one man scoop ice off the sideline and put it in a plastic bag," Charlene Miller said. "He said he was going to keep it in his freezer."

Several Colts' players lingered, signing autographs for nearly an hour, she said:

"It was so cold that John Unitas' hair was frozen. I put my shawl over his head, and he stayed until every fan was gone. I'll never forget that."

In the Colts' heyday, fans flocked to Friendship Airport (now BWI Thurgood Marshall) to welcome the team home from a conference title game. In 1968, a throng of more than 10,000 cheering celebrants rallied there to greet the victors, only to learn that airport security personnel, fearing a riot, had landed the Colts' charter from Cleveland on a far-off runway.

Angry fans broke through a 9-foot wire fence and surged onto the tarmac and into the main terminal in a vain search for their heroes.

The Sun reported one injury in the melee:

"A New York-bound passenger, Walter D. Smith, of Tulsa, who looks like [Colts] coach Don Shula, from the back, was set upon by about 20 youths and knocked to the floor in the crush.

"As he got to his feet, Mr. Smith began cursing the Colts and the fans and football in general, and stalked from the terminal. He got into a cab and told the driver: 'Take me to the railroad station.'"

In 2001, a cavalcade of more than 1,000 cars lined Owings Mills Boulevard, near the Ravens' complex, where fans cheered their team as it bused home from the airport at 3:30 a.m. following a victory at Oakland for the AFC title.

"It was gratifying to round off the freeway . . . and see the cars backed up and the throng of people, in the cold," coach Brian Billick said then. "Kids and old people. I also noticed a number of crushed beer cans. They kept warm in a lot of different ways."

But the public will never concur with the players that winning the final tuneup to the Super Bowl is itself a heady achievement, former Colts center Bill Curry said.

"The culture we live in doesn't recognize what a great accomplishment it is to win a conference championship," said Curry, who played in three of those classics in Baltimore and is now head coach at Georgia State. "In the players' eyes, and among our brotherhood, it's a big deal. But today, for this generation, The Big One is what counts in this country — and if you don't win the Super Bowl, you ain't nothin'."

Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.

Baltimore's history in conference championship games

1968 season (NFL title): Colts 34, Cleveland Browns 0

(Super Bowl III: New York Jets 16, Colts 7)

1970 (AFC championship): Colts 27, Oakland Raiders 17

(Super Bowl V: Colts 16, Dallas Cowboys 13)

1971 (AFC championship): Miami Dolphins 21, Colts 0

2000 (AFC championship): Ravens 16, Oakland Raiders 3

(Super Bowl XXXV: Ravens 34, New York Giants 7)

2008 (AFC championship): Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Ravens 14

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