The legend has become so infamous that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin even gave it a nickname the other night: Hocus-pocus. As in, what do you mean a team can't beat another three times in one season?
"I personally don't subscribe to that hocus-pocus to be honest with you," Tomlin said.
It's a myth anyway; when a team has swept a division opponent in one season and then played it a third time in the postseason, it is more likely to win that third game. It has happened 18 times since the first time in 1982, and the 2-0 team won the next game in 11 of them.
That's why the Baltimore Ravens, 0-2 against the Steelers this season, are no more likely to win the AFC championship game at Heinz Field Sunday than a flipped coin will come up heads after it turned tails two consecutive times.
That's about the difference between these two AFC North Division foes, too, a flip of a coin.
"What happened in the other two games will have no bearing on the outcome of this game," Tomlin said. "The other two games were close; one went into overtime and the other one was low scoring. It doesn't mean that is going to be the case this week. We are going to prepare with respects to that; and understand that each individual performance stands on its own. We aren't buying into that."
Even their own more recent history shows they can sweep the same opponent three times in one season. They've done it against the Ravens' forefathers, the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers beat the Browns, then coached by the pre-genius Bill Belichick, twice in the 1994 regular season and then by 29-9 in the playoffs. They beat the "new" Browns three times in the 2002 season. Overall when the Steelers played a division opponent for the third time, they've gone 7-0 in the playoff game.
"Third time?" Hines Ward said, when asked about the myth. "It's tough beating a team three times."
No, it is not. What has really proven difficult for the Steelers is to beat the Baltimore Ravens at all. They won each of the two previous games by the thinnest of margins -- by three in overtime at Heinz Field and by four on a disputed touchdown pass with 43 seconds left in Baltimore.
The Steelers have a strange sort of respect and pride in the fact AFC North Division runner-up Baltimore made it to the AFC championship game with them.
"We hate them on the field, no doubt about it," linebacker Larry Foote said. "But we give them the ultimate respect because they're a good opponent. They take us to the wire every game.
"Since I've been here, us two have dominated the division. We're represented well. We heard talk about the AFC South all year and here's two teams from the North representing the AFC."
Some Steelers will even admit to rooting for Baltimore against Tennessee Saturday, mostly so the AFC title game would be at Heinz Field rather than in Nashville, Tenn.
"It was kind of hard rooting for them," Foote said. "You feel awkward but overall I was rooting for them.
"I knew all year long we were the two best teams in the AFC, in my opinion, just watching all the other teams."
Each team won one Super Bowl this century, the Ravens' first as a franchise (even if the old Browns are included) after the 2000 season and the Steelers' fifth after 2005. In 2002, the Steelers beat the Ravens in a wild-card playoff game and then lost the following week at Tennessee. It's the only time the Ravens and Steelers met in the postseason.
"I'm kind of glad we get to play them in the AFC championship," safety Ryan Clark said, "because playing those guys early [in a playoff] might leave a few of you on the injured list. Those games we had between us and them have been very physical. I think it's going to be another physical game. I'm excited. Their whole persona is kind of in your face."
Clark said that extends to the Baltimore coaching staff.
"I was on the sideline and their coach kind of cussed me," Clark said of their past meeting Dec. 14.
Head coach John Harbaugh?
"Yep, ol' head ball coach," Clark replied.
"That's what their whole team does. They're a punch-in-your-mouth type of group, and we are a not-going-to-let-you-punch-us-in-the-mouth type of group."
Sunday, let the footballs, the myths and the fists fly.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 15, 2009) The Steelers beat Baltimore after the 2001 regular season, then lost to New England. but both games were played in calendar year of 2002. They beat Cleveland after the 2002 regular season, then lost to Tennessee. The Steelers' opponents were incorrect in this story as originally published Jan. 13, 2009.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 13, 2009 5:00 AM