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Steelers' focus immediately turns to bitter division rival

PITTSBURGH -- This isn't something that has been manufactured for the sake of cheap publicity.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens genuinely don't like each other.

Championship Sunday preview

With the Ravens and Steelers set to meet next Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, Vic Carucci has five key questions whose answers could determine which team advances to Super Bowl XLIII. **More ...**

And that mutual hostility, which has played itself out in their two AFC North meetings each year during the regular season, is going to take on an even greater level of intensity when they clash in the AFC Championship Game.

"It's kind of like Rocky vs. Drago almost," Steelers offensive guard Willie Colon said. "It's going to be a slugfest. It's going to be nasty."

Added Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks: "Every time you say, 'Baltimore-Pittsburgh in a football game,' you know it's going to be a tough, physical, grind-out, bloodbath."

The Steelers' 35-24 divisional-round playoff victory over the Chargers had ended only moments earlier, but few players in the Pittsburgh dressing room wanted to talk about or even savor the game that had just been played.

The focus had promptly been placed on the task ahead.

Earlier in the season, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward called himself the "most hated man in Baltimore" because of the bone-crushing blocks he had delivered to Ravens players and the subsequent revelation by Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs that there was a "bounty on his head." Ward smiled at the prospect of facing the Ravens for a third time, especially with so much at stake.

"It'll be a great AFC Championship Game to watch," Ward said.

The Steelers needed little time to put aside their triumph over the Chargers, during which they came back from 7-0 and 10-7 deficits in the first half before running away with the game in the final two quarters. They ran the ball well (Willie Parker had 146 yards and two touchdowns). Ben Roethlisberger showed no ill affects from the concussion he suffered in the regular-season finale. And the defense stuffed running back Darren Sproles and pressured Philip Rivers.

Still, it's a little hard to be satisfied with beating an opponent that had entered the postseason with an 8-8 record. A team that also needed to win its last four games in a row just to make the playoffs and then won an overtime game in the wild-card round before taking a cross-country flight to temperatures more than 50 degrees colder than back home. That was a game the Steelers fully expected to win, and should have won as the No. 2 seed in the AFC that had the benefit of a first-round bye.

It didn't matter that three other playoff teams with byes had lost. All that mattered was that the Steelers took care of business. And as far as they're concerned, the right team emerged from the other divisional-round game. As awkward as it was, Steelers players were openly rooting for the Ravens to beat Tennessee on Saturday, but not only because it gave them the opportunity to host the AFC title game.

If you ask some members of the Steelers, the most logical showdown to determine the AFC representative for Super Bowl XLIII was not Pittsburgh and the top-seeded Titans or two opponents from the division that had widely been viewed as the AFC's best, the South.

It was between two clubs from the AFC North -- between the team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in defense (the Steelers) against the one ranked No. 2 (the Ravens).

"I knew all year long we were the two best teams in the AFC, just my opinion (from) watching all the other teams," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "When you've got a good defense like (the Steelers and Ravens have), you can be in any game. Teams want to simulate Pittsburgh and Baltimore, just the way we play. But you can't coach what we've got. You've got to do a good job and bring the right players in to do it."

Said Starks: "I think it is very appropriate, looking at both of these teams. We're very similar in style, and it's going to be a great matchup. Both teams have always had top-five defenses every single year since I've been in the league (2004). I think it's going to be good representation for the AFC."

Just look at their games this season. The Steelers beat the Ravens, 23-20 in overtime, here on Sept. 29. Then they beat them again, 13-9, at Baltimore on Dec. 14 to clinch the AFC North championship. Both games were typical of the series between the teams: close, competitive, and, most of all, hard-hitting.

The second game ended in controversy after Santonio Holmes caught a pass from Roethlisberger on the fringe of the goal line with less than a minute left. Officials first ruled that it was not a touchdown but, after looking a video replay, determined the ball had broken the plane and awarded the Steelers what would prove to be the decisive points.

The Ravens no doubt harbor some ill feelings from that one. Some of their players, including linebacker Ray Lewis, no doubt are still upset by the fact that when the teams last met in the playoffs, during a divisional-round game after the 2001 season, the Steelers won, 27-10.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as does what some Pittsburgh players perceive as a team that is a bit too effusive in celebrating its accomplishments and in talking trash.

"It's just the history, the arrogance of them sometimes, the lack of respect they show us at times," Colon said. "Not that we aren't a nasty team, not that we don't retaliate at times. But at the same time, they feel like, for whatever reason, they're worthy of whatever (accolades) they get.

"One thing about football, it's not about what you say. It's about what you do. And come next weekend, it's all about rolling that football out."

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