NFL Preview: Super Bowl Slots at Stake Sunday

The NFL playoffs are down to four teams; two who hate each other so much that a mayor has changed his name, and two surprising others who have endured tough times and frequent defeats.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens renew the NFL's newest and nastiest rivalry for the AFC Championship, while the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles play for an NFC Championship few expected them to even a week ago.

The ultimate prizes are berths in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

This is the fifth Ravens-Steelers game in 15 months, and familiarly breeds contempt between two relatively nearby teams that have combined to win six of the last seven AFC North division titles.

"It's not like we're going to go outside the stadium and fight each other," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "But it's genuine hate when we go out and play each other. There's no helping each other up, there's going to be a lot of talking."

So far, the talk has been respectful between teams that are eerily alike in personality and performance but, at least in Pittsburgh, the expectations are the bad mouthing has only begun.

"I knew this was a big rivalry when I came into the league (in 2001) and I remember (Baltimore's) Ray Lewis and (Pittsburgh's) Jerome Bettis really getting after it, talking trash, hitting each other," Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. "It was unbelievable, some of the talking and some of the hits. They'd hit each other, then they'd talk to each other."

Neither the talking nor the hitting has stopped.

The Ravens' Bart Scott once was so angry with big hits Ward put on him that he threatened to kill Ward the next time they played. Terrell Suggs bragged the Ravens put bounties on Ward and rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall during Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime win in September, when Lewis' hard hit gave Mendenhall a season-ending shoulder injury. Mendenhall angered the Ravens by saying beforehand he anticipated having a big game. The NFL investigated but apparently took no action.

Here's how much the Ravens are disliked in Pittsburgh: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl (note the first six letters in his last name) changed the name on his office door this week to Steelerstahl.

Mitch Berger, the punter, alleged the Ravens' Frank Walker spit on him during a last-minute 13-9 win last month that clinched the AFC North title for Pittsburgh. Walker said it was, ahem, unintentional.

Ward said the defenses are so good, with Pittsburgh No. 1 in the league and Baltimore No. 2, that it was the only game the Steelers play all season in which only a single touchdown was expected.

"You feel a lot worse on Monday after a (Ravens-Steelers) game," Ravens safety Jim Leonhard said. "It's a physical game. It's everything you think it would be."

Intensity doesn't come to mind when thinking of the Cardinals and Eagles.

The Cardinals are more familiar with the basement of the NFL, whether they represented Chicago, St. Louis or, now Arizona. And the Eagles, while they have stayed put in Philadelphia, have not won a league crown since 1960. Although they've experienced far more success than the Cardinals, they have felt the sting of losing in the bigtime, including three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl this decade.

The Cardinals have earned respect this season, taking their first division title since 1975, then winning as underdogs against Atlanta and Carolina in the playoffs. Although they are not favored again against the Eagles, the Cardinals hardly are a pushover.

Many of them know what it feels like to be a nonentity.

"When you think about where we were five years ago, to not really feel like we had a chance to win," defensive end Bertrand Berry said, "to be in this point, it's unbelievable. It's something I always thought could happen, but we had to actually go out and make it happen."

Not even quarterback Kurt Warner, the eternal optimist with a history of winning (Super Bowl champion, league MVP) that seemed to make him a misfit at Arizona, was certain such success would happen now.

"It's funny because, even though we've exceeded expectations, now that we're here, I'm not satisfied," Warner said.

The Eagles have been this far many times since Andy Reid became coach in 1999. And they lost. And they learned.

"As a player, I think that you understand that the window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever," Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook said. "But if you have a very good team you could go back year after year and hopefully have the opportunity to achieve your goal. We have a very good team here and we really don't think about it, we really don't worry about the window of opportunity. We try to make the most of every opportunity that we have, and if we do that, then we'll be right where we want to be at."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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