In Baltimore, the land of the perpetually anxious, Ravens fans are damp with the usual flop sweat as the season opener against the Steelers approaches.
Also as usual, people in this town are ascribing all sorts of Armageddon-like significance to the game.
In this case, though, the fans might have a point. Because this is a huge game. And the reason is simple: the Steelers are in the Ravens’ heads, big-time. And until the Ravens find a way to exorcise their black-and-gold demons — and a smackdown of the Steelers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium would help — their run for a Super Bowl ring goes nowhere.
If you doubt how much the Ravens obsess about their arch-rivals, you did not hear Terrell Suggs speak to the media Wednesday, right before thunderstorms of biblical proportions drove practice inside at the Castle.
Suggs, the Ravens All-Pro outside linebacker, can come on like a buffoon sometimes. Or even like a space cadet. But the fact is, he also can be one of the most thoughtful Ravens when he wants to be, when he is not straining for laughs.
When he was asked about the Steelers Wednesday, Suggs grimaced and shook his head sadly. No jokes this time.
“They spoiled our Super Bowl dream for two out of the last three years,” he said, shaking his head. “So, we gotta switch that. It’s sickening and it ends our season every year and we lose to our division rival.
“I’m sick of it. I’m disgusted. I’m tired of having a sick feeling in my stomach.”
I know, I know. You wish the guy would open up a little. Tell us what he really thinks.
But Suggs occasionally will do that for you, bare his soul, before a big game. And when was the last time the Ravens had a big opening game like this, a Week 1 showdown in what has become one of the best rivalries in all of sports?
“It’s the best in sports,” Suggs corrected, “because everything the fans want to see out of a rivalry is in this game. The hatred between the two teams. The physicality.”
Except there is just one little problem with the rivalry: the Ravens have dropped six of the past eight games between the two teams. And that includes that horror show in the divisional playoff round in January at Heinz Field, when the Ravens led, 21-7, at halftime and blew the game, 31-24.
Sure, the games have been close. In five of the past eight, just three points separated the winner and loser. In another game, the difference was four.
But the fact is, the Steelers have dominated the rivalry in recent years. The Steelers have found a way to win when they needed to. The Steelers made the big plays when they counted most.
And the Ravens know it. And it eats at them like a slow acid drip in the gut.
It’s funny, though, you talk to some of the Ravens, and they try to downplay how much losing to the Steelers haunts them.
They give you all this stuff about how great the rivalry is and how much they respect the Steelers and how much they enjoy playing against them. And, OK, I’m sure it’s all true.
But, in the back of their minds, they know the Steelers have their number. And that until they beat Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup, until they find a way to overcome the voodoo that the great Steelers quarterback seems to throw at them time and again, the road to the Super Bowl is blocked like a tunnel cave-in.
The Ravens seemed to sense that as the thunderstorms roared through Owings Mills Wednesday, even if it was only Suggs who articulated it.
“At the end of the day,” said Ray Rice, the gritty running back, “it’s not the end of the world, a loss in Week 1. But, at the same time, if you kick your season off with a win, you get your confidence going for the rest of the year.”
The little man was right, of course.
But kick off your season with a win against the Steelers, and your confidence red-lines all that much more.
That’s why it was Suggs’ message that seemed to resonate the loudest.
New season, he seemed to be saying. New Ravens team. Put it to the Steelers right away, this Sunday, in front of a sellout home crowd.
Get rid of the demons — at least for now.