"You've reached a point where you're right at the epitome of what you want — the Super Bowl," Tom Matte said. "Lose the conference title and your season ends abruptly. You're dead in the water. You go home.
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Of the five modern-era conference championship games — those leading to a world title game — in which Baltimore teams have played, Matte, 71, starred in the first. In the 1968 NFL title game — then the last step before the Super Bowl — the Colts halfback scored three touchdowns in a 34-0 rout of Cleveland, before collapsing in the winners' locker room.
The victory still resonates with fans and the players, who avenged a 27-0 loss to the Browns in the 1964 NFLchampionship.
"We just ran Cleveland off the field," said Fred Miller, the Colts' defensive captain who received the game ball that day. "I remember going into the huddle beside (linebacker) Mike Curtis, who'd had the nails torn off two of his fingers. The blood was dripping on my shoes."
Curtis glanced at his fingers, then at Miller.
"You ain't goin' nowhere," Miller growled. "It's only third down."
Such is the mind set that drives players in the penultimate playoff game.
"You're sky-high for the (conference championship) to make sure you'll be a Super Bowl team," said Dan Sullivan, the Colts' All-Pro guard who played in three such games. "You don't go into it thinking, 'I'll give 80 percent today and then work harder for the Super Bowl,' because there is no tomorrow."
Of course, those in the moment don't necessarily stop to reflect on the importance of the game. That often comes with the added perspective of years passing.
Defeating New England on Sunday "would mean a lot, but it's not the ultimate goal," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said. "You're not going to win something like that and just stop. You're not going to say, 'That's enough, we don't expect to go any further.'
"In hockey, they don't touch the (conference) trophy, right? It's bad luck to touch the trophy. I don't think we have that superstition in football, but we're going to be proud of that trophy, if we can manage (to win it)."
While in Baltimore, the Colts won two of the three conference title games in which they played; the Ravens are 1-1. All but one of the contests have been on the road. In the 1970 postseason, the Colts defeated Oakland, 27-17 at icy Memorial Stadium before 56,000 jubilant fans anxious to erase the stigma of their team having lost Super Bowl III two years before.
If the Colts needed more incentive, "we learned before the game that the Raiders had brought all of their belongings with them, in anticipation of going straight to the Super Bowl," said Bob Vogel, the Colts' All-Pro tackle. "Usually, in the postseason, your [competitive] juices are squirting around anyway, but that thought just sweetened the pot."
As the game wore on, "people started screaming and hollering, 'We're going to the Super Bowl! Five [V] is alive!" said Charlene Miller, wife of the Colts' captain who sat in the stands. "The whole stadium shook; it was like a wave that you could feel under your feet."
Afterward, fans charged onto the field in celebration.
"I saw one man scoop ice off the sideline and put it in a plastic bag," Charlene Miller said. "He said he was going to keep it in his freezer."
Several Colts' players lingered, signing autographs for nearly an hour, she said: