Collier: Win or lose, this one is going to hurt

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That the Steelers' postseason will begin and possibly end with still another lowbrow argument with the Baltimore Ravens isn't terribly surprising, nor should it in any way be disappointing.

But in one not terribly significant way, I think it is.

It's like finding out after months of planning and too many hours of anticipatory speculation that, oh yeah, you're going to the prom but the first thing on the program is an alley fight out back.

What, again?

There goes that deposit on the tux.

We've pretty much established that the Steelers-Ravens matchup presents its own hyper-violent genre of competition, football on the far edges of sanity. Modern writers have taken their shots at describing it, but none probably came as close as Mark Twain describing a thunder storm just 127 years ago, or as they like to say, before the merger.

"WHACK -- Bum! Bum! Bumble-umble-um-bum-bum-bum-bum -- and the thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and quit -- and then RIP comes another flash and another sockdolager!"

The first sockdolager of the most recent episode, Dec. 5 at Baltimore, arrived on the flying left paw of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti (Say Haloti to my little friend) Ngata, with which he rearranged Big Bloody Ben's nose so that the end pointed toward Annapolis. The last came via the hurtling 250-pound missile of a linebacker named Jameel McClain, whose collision with tight end Heath Miller left Miller in a mental place well over the state line.

It's all part of why Steelers safety Ryan Clark, among the hardest hitters on either roster, said he much appreciated getting last weekend off.

"I like the hitting part, but not the soreness [afterward]," Clark said before Tuesday's practice. "I got to wake up with no pain."

That won't be the situation Sunday morning. Win or lose, this is gonna hurt.

"It's like the old West," said Steelers corner Bryant McFadden. "It's like two gunfighters. You're looking at two teams with the same mindset, the same kind of approach."

All football considerations aside, you know that Heinz Field at dusk Saturday will be a big bowl of nasty, and you get the feeling sometimes that it has to be that way just to "honor" Steelers-Ravens traditions.

"They're a really salty group," was one of Mike Tomlin's primary descriptions for this week's opponent.

Tomlin has got more than enough chops with the language for anyone to second-guess that adjective, so I would presume he's indicating flavorful or zesty rather than that the Ravens are comprised of a chemical compound formed by replacing all or part of the hydrogen ions of an acid with metal ions or electropositive radicals.

Yes, I think that's safe, especially since Ravens safety Ed Reed is clearly zesty with those eight interceptions.

But even as the Steelers quite evidently match the Ravens salt for salt, rock for rock, salt is still no synonym for psychosis, which too often seems closer to the predominant mental state of the people between the sidelines.

There's little use in rifling through the atrocities associated with this series. From Joey Porter's cheap shot on a hurting Todd Heap all the way back in '04 to McClain's $40,000 helmet-to-helmet thunderbolt on Miller, the two teams have always appeared as intent on proving that this ain't no boat race as they are with winning.

Asked for a specific memory of the series he walked into as Tommy Maddox was getting pounded out of Steelers history one day near the Inner Harbor, the first one that came to Ben Roethlisberger's mind wasn't pleasant. "I remember Bart Scott putting me on my back," he said.

This time there's little likelihood of any variation on the theme. Five of the past six regular-season games between these teams were decided by three points, the other by four. The AFC championship two years ago looks like a romp on history's surface, but the Steelers' 23-14 victory was a two-point affair until Troy Polamalu won it with a 40-yard interception return with 4:34 left.

Miller said Tuesday this is all a result of how remarkably similar the teams are, and doesn't regard the Ravens as any more or less violent than his typical assignment. But Saturday brings his first venture into an unkindness of ravens since he was separated from coherence for the better part of three weeks in December.

"In my mind that's behind me; I've crossed that hurdle," Miller said. "It's free from my mind right now."

Miller said he couldn't avoid the video of McClain drilling him, of his body going limp near the sideline. It was sickening. At that moment, missing a couple of games seemed like a miracle.

"It gives you time to reflect on some things," Miller said, "but it's natural for a football player to compete. Once you're ready, that's what you do."

So that's what we'll have Saturday, a competition.

That's a nicely as I can put it.

Gene Collier: .


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