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Ravens set to host Chiefs in ‘biggest home game in the history of Baltimore football’

Start with this: The Ravens have never hosted a game with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.

No Baltimore team has since Jan. 3, 1971, when the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders to advance to Super Bowl V in an age before our nation’s 24/7 obsession with all things NFL.

Then, add in the players: Lamar Jackson — with apologies to Joe Flacco and Bert Jones, Baltimore’s first transcendent quarterback since Johnny Unitas — going against the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the king he aspires to usurp. Not to mention the expected presence of a certain tight end-dating, world-enveloping pop star.

This spectacle will unfold at 3 p.m. Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, with 70,000 patrons (plus one Taylor Swift) bellowing and tens of millions watching on CBS after a week of anxious previewing in homes, shops and watering holes around the Baltimore area.

“I would say this is the biggest home game in the history of Baltimore football,” said Gerry Sandusky, the radio voice of the Ravens who was a 9-year-old kid, watching his father coach for the Colts, in 1971. “Time has taught us how precious it is.”

The Ravens have won two Super Bowls in the 28 seasons since they arrived from Cleveland but have never advanced to the grandest game in front of their home loyalists. In 2012, their path went through Foxborough, Massachusetts, and in 2000, through Oakland, California. Their most hyped home playoff game before this one, 17 years ago against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, ended in a bitter 15-6 defeat.

Unitas’ Colts beat the Raiders at Memorial Stadium in that first AFC championship game and won an NFL championship against the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 1959 (the year after they traveled to New York to win the “Greatest Game Ever Played). That’s about it for Baltimore and football games of this magnitude.

“This is going to be the largest one-day sporting event in Baltimore in my lifetime,” Mayor Brandon Scott said. “The city will be fired up, and we will be letting Mr. Mahomes and the Chiefs know how we feel about them. And we want to put it all to bed now, all the naysayers and haters about what has happened with his team. Baltimore, like our quarterback, has been far too long told what we can’t do.”

It’s why a small allotment of tickets the Ravens released Tuesday sold out in less than six hours, why seats were going for a minimum of $507 on the resale website Seat Geek, why fans planned transatlantic flights to reunite with their Baltimore kin Sunday.

Bobby Wojcik, of Pasadena, pressed the refresh button on his computer with numbing persistence Tuesday morning, and his heart leaped when the screen finally flashed to a checkout tab for two tickets. The 38-year-old has been a Ravens fan since the team arrived and has attended some momentous home games, but nothing like this.

“This team has been different to me than any other Ravens team I’ve watched,” Wojcik said. “I’ve never seen them be so complete. Mahomes is Mahomes, but this is the best team I’ve seen personally.”

He ate at the Five Guys near his home before every game during the 2012 team’s run to the Super Bowl, revisited the lucky burger joint before last weekend’s playoff victory over the Texans and planned to dine there again before making his way to the stadium Sunday.

“There’s such a buzz about it,” he said of the anticipatory march to kickoff. “For me, it’s one of the most exciting things — the energy, the atmosphere, the vibes. It’s the one time where everyone’s getting along and having a good time.”

The Ravens will have their A-listers — Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as legends of the game, fellow franchise forefather Jonathan Ogden as honorary game captain, 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps delivering the game ball — on hand to whip fans into a fury.

They enjoyed a taste of their crowd’s deafening impact during that win over the Texans, who bumbled their way to seven presnap penalties, in part because of the din from the stands.

“Even driving out of the stadium, there were still people everywhere, lined up around everywhere,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Of course, I rolled my window down and yelled, ‘Go Ravens!’ It was really fun. It was loud. It was emotional. You could just tell how much it meant. I would say that this game is even bigger.”

Kicker Justin Tucker said his wife, Amanda, was sitting with guard Kevin Zeitler’s wife, Sara, at the Texans game. She felt the building shake beneath her feet. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the stadium like that,” she told her husband afterward.

Tucker is in his 12th season, the only player left from the Ravens’ last Super Bowl winner. “I can tell you what it means to me,” he said of playing an AFC championship game in Baltimore. “I’m getting to play in my hometown stadium, where my home is. Getting to play for a championship in that way is really, really special. It’s exciting around town. Folks are fired up for the Ravens, and they should be.”

Boisterous crowds are nothing new for Baltimore. As Bill Curry, the Colts’ center in the 1971 AFC championship game against the Raiders, pointed out, Memorial Stadium was christened “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum.”

Curry played and coached for more than 50 years and said the thrill of his NFL life was standing on that field, listening to the noise crescendo — “By the time he got to the huddle, everyone had tears in their eyes” — as Unitas was introduced.

In his day, the Colts offensive linemen drank beer on Friday afternoons with factory workers who made similar salaries to them. A homemade banner on the outside of the stadium exhorted mammoth defender Charles “Bubba” Smith to “Kill Bubba, Kill!”

Unitas was already a mythic figure in and out of Baltimore, but that 1971 game against the Raiders was not dissected in every corner of the media landscape the way it would be today. No one had any inkling that Oakland coach John Madden, 34 years old at the time, would transform sports broadcasting and video gaming.

“I don’t know that it felt much different to us,” Curry said. “That was a crazy year. I don’t know what it’s like now, but there have to be even more possibilities for distraction.”

In Mahomes and Jackson, he sees players every bit as worthy of awe as Unitas was in his era.

“There’s a greatness to Jackson and Mahomes, an intuitive sense of how to make something happen, how to escape when you’re trapped by three big, fast people when there’s no way out,” Curry said. “They come out of it like Houdini and throw a perfect spiral 60 yards. I don’t know that we’ve seen anything quite like these two.”

Sandusky recalled that the 1971 game, which he watched with his mother and brother from the lower deck at Memorial Stadium, “felt every bit as big to me and my family because my dad was coaching.” The Colts were looking to transcend the disappointment of two years earlier, when they were the most dominant team in the sport but lost Super Bowl III to a mouthy gunslinging quarterback named Joe Namath.

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“But ESPN didn’t exist. There was no 24/7 news cycle,” Sandusky said. “You didn’t have social media. It wasn’t remotely as big a deal to every single person.”

Colts fans had experienced a few disappointments, but the team had been around less than 20 years at that point and was about to win its third championship. Baltimore football fans today are more seasoned, both in celebration and heartache.

“There’s depth, there’s relativity,” Sandusky said. “I think people are feeling what most people feel before a championship game, which is that, ‘This could be great! Or, this could be awful!’ We’re in rarefied air when you get to this point. Only two things can happen, and there’s a chasm in between.”

Jackson arrived in Baltimore six years ago, thinking big. He promised the city a Super Bowl the night the Ravens drafted him. A pair of home playoff losses in 2018 and 2019 rank among the most disappointing games of his career, but he’s now the closest he has ever been to making good on his ambition.

Was this home-field reckoning with the Chiefs what he envisioned when he made that pact with his adopted town?

“No, because the mission isn’t complete,” Jackson said. “Once that mission is complete, then I’m going to have an answer for you.”

AFC championship game

Chiefs at Ravens

Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV: CBS

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2