After 53 years, Baltimore is again a gateway to the Super Bowl as AFC championship game host

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1971 AP

FILE - Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas follows the blocking of Bob Vogel (72) as he runs for a first down to the Oakland Raiders 10-yard line during the first quarter of the AFC NFL football championship game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Jan. 3, 1971. At right foreground, Raiders defender Carleton Oats slides head first on the ground. For the first time in 53 years, Baltimore is hosting the AFC championship game, bringing a different kind of spotlight to Charm City this weekend. (AP Photo/File)

BALTIMORE – The last time Baltimore hosted an AFC championship game, the city was enjoying quite a sports renaissance.

The Orioles had won the World Series a few months earlier. Then the Colts followed with a Super Bowl title. Even the local basketball team made an appearance in the NBA Finals.

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“It literally felt, at least to a 9-year-old, like the axis of the Earth ran through Baltimore,” said Gerry Sandusky, who is now the radio voice of the Baltimore Ravens. “You had Johnny Unitas, you had Brooks Robinson, you had Wes Unseld. You had these three really great teams.”

When the Ravens take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Baltimore will be back in the spotlight in a way that's a bit more rare these days. It's the first AFC title game here since January 1971, when the Colts — with Sandusky's father John as a line coach — beat the Oakland Raiders. Over a half-century later, and with a different NFL franchise representing Baltimore, Charm City will again serve as a gateway to the Super Bowl.

“This is going to be the largest one-day sporting event in Baltimore in my lifetime,” Mayor Brandon Scott said. “We want everyone to have a smooth and enjoyable experience. Everyone that is coming into town — even Taylor Swift.”

Yes, a matchup with the Chiefs has Baltimore preparing for a visit from Swift, whose boyfriend Travis Kelce plays for Kansas City. But the significance of this week is deeper than that for local fans. It's probably the most anticipated home game in Baltimore since Cal Ripken tied and broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record in 1995.

For a football game of this magnitude, you have to go back over 50 years. That 1971 game was something of a novelty — the first AFC championship after the AFL-NFL merger.

The Super Bowl was still a fairly new phenomenon. Baltimore had made it two seasons earlier but lost as a heavy favorite to Joe Namath's New York Jets. A 27-17 win over the Raiders sent the Colts back again, with future NFL coach Ray Perkins catching a long touchdown pass from Unitas on the worn-down field at Memorial Stadium.

“For the Colts, it was about vindication from two years earlier,” Sandusky said. “One of the things I do remember is after the game, being super excited for my dad, we go back to the Super Bowl, but there was some PTSD, there was some hesitancy of like, man, it didn't go so well last time.”

This time the Colts finished the job, beating Dallas 16-13 on a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds by Jim O’Brien. Ravens coach John Harbaugh was about the same age as Sandusky then.

“I can remember that kick,” Harbaugh said. "Straight ahead. Boom. It was a short kick as I recall.”

At that time, Baltimore was no stranger to great sports moments. The Orioles won the World Series in 1966 and 1970. After the Colts won it all in early 1971, the Baltimore Bullets — who were just 42-40 in the regular season — won two straight Game 7s to reach the NBA Finals before being swept by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Orioles nearly repeated as champions, losing Game 7 of the World Series at home to Pittsburgh in 1971. The golden age of Baltimore sports was ending.

The Bullets and Colts would eventually move, the latter infamously doing so in the middle of the night in 1984. The Orioles won another World Series in 1983, but wrapped up both their postseason rounds on the road that year. They started playing at Camden Yards in 1992, and as much as it revolutionized how baseball parks are built, the venue has never hosted a World Series.

Maybe that will change soon. The Orioles won 101 games last year with a core of young players that could make any franchise envious. They're actually having their offseason Birdland Caravan in the Baltimore area this week, meaning manager Brandon Hyde has been in town.

He's planning to attend the Ravens-Chiefs game.

“I can't wait for Sunday,” Hyde said. “Just driving in (Wednesday) night from the airport, seeing all the purple, and the purple lights, pretty special. So really excited for those guys.”

If another exciting era in Baltimore sports has arrived, hosting this football game is an important milestone. The Ravens began playing in 1996 and have won two Super Bowls, but they had only one home playoff game in each of those postseasons.

So this weekend will be memorable. With the Super Bowl at a predetermined site each year, the conference championship is generally the biggest game you can host.

“To a large degree, this is the last true football game. After this, it's just two weeks of pageantry and celebrity and corporate crowds," Sandusky said. "It's just a very different animal. This is the end of the road for the die-hard fans who have been at home supporting the team all year, which is what makes it so special.”



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