For obvious reasons, the Ravens will be totally psyched to join Ray Lewis on his "last ride" when they take the field at M&T; Bank Stadium in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday. The Indianapolis Colts also will show up with hearts afire for head coach Chuck Pagano, whose battle against leukemia has been the inspirational story of the season.
If that isn't enough human interest for you, new Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will be calling plays against the team he led to the Super Bowl three years ago and — since we never get tired of this — local fans will burn for a little more revenge against the franchise that deserted Baltimore nearly three decades ago.
This matchup is so fraught with emotional subplots, it might be a good time to bring in a team of head doctors to figure out just how much all these mind games will impact the action on the field and the chances of either team advancing to the next round of the playoffs.
Dr. Joel Fish, director of Philadelphia's Center for Sport Psychology, looks at the motivational dynamics at work in Sunday's game and sees the likelihood that both teams will benefit in some way from them.
"You can't paint everybody with the same brush," Fish said, "but if you're asking me to look at what happens most of the time, I think these kinds of things really can work as a positive motivator for players. I think leadership really does make a difference on a team. If someone has been recognized as a great leader because of his skill and his personality and his communication skills and his people skills and his emotion, then it goes back to Knute Rockne saying 'Win one for the Gipper.' Playing for a cause can be an effective motivator to rally a team around a common goal.
"Is there a guarantee we get the results we want? Of course not. You can't script this stuff. But is it more often than not a positive motivator as opposed to a draining motivator? I would say, yes it is."
Dr. Eric Morse, a sports psychiatrist at Carolina Performance and the associate editor of the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, tends to agree, but cautions that there are times when such a heightened level of emotion can be counterproductive.
"I think sometimes it can backfire," Morse said. "It depends on the team. It depends on the individual, because I think you have to regulate your emotions. It's not just being up, because you can sometimes overshoot the mark and get too emotional and get too revved up. You have to be in control of your emotions, not just be fired up."
The Ravens should be able to handle that sort of thing, since Lewis already is in charge of firing up the sellout crowd at M&T; Bank Stadium during pregame introductions and pumping up the adrenaline in his teammates with a fiery pregame speech.
Still, when the greatest player in the history of the Ravens franchise says this is his last chance for another Super Bowl ring and the opposing coach has just returned from a life-threatening illness, it's not going to be business as usual.
"In these two particular cases, because of how much each of these guys mean to their respective teams — with Chuck and how much his guys love playing for him and obviously Ray's been the emotional leader of the Ravens for a long time — I don't think there's any question that these guys need to admit that it's going to be an issue," said Dr. Greg Dale, a professor of sport psychology at Duke University and the director of the sport psychology and leadership programs for Duke athletics. "The key is who's going to be able to channel these emotions in the right direction and be able to control them, because they will be there."
There's no question that those kinds of interpersonal storylines are magnified during the media buildup to a big game and, generally, the Ravens players and coaches tend to downplay anything that is not directly related to the job at hand, but that has been impossible this week.
Even no-nonsense quarterback Joe Flacco could not deny that there will be an extra layer of meaning applied to his fifth straight foray into the postseason.
"I'm the first person that would tell you, 'Yeah, you're making too big a deal about that kind of thing,' " Flacco said, "but, for whatever reason, it ends up not being [made] too big of a deal. For some reason, those things do have a little bit of play-in to how things go. So, I think we've got a pretty powerful emotional feeling … with Ray on our side. If they do mean something, I think we've got the leg up."
Curiously, Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not speak publicly until Friday about Lewis' decision to retire, leaving room to wonder how he really felt about the timing of the announcement, but Dale cautioned against reading anything negative into Harbaugh's lack of immediate public endorsement.
"He probably wanted to try to do things as consistently as possible, and that's why he chose not to [comment]," Dale said. "I think he's probably trying to help control these guys' emotions. You can play too high. Ray Lewis … you want that guy pumped up … but you don't want Flacco foaming at the mouth and playing on emotion when he has to make critical decisions. At the end of the day, you still have to execute, so it'll come down to who can corral those emotions and execute the best."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.