OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Matt Birk made his debut in the NFL as part of a Minnesota Vikings team that went 15-1. Minnesota reached the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, too.
Although the Vikings never made it to the Super Bowl during that span, Birk figured it was only a matter of time before he would be fitted for a Super Bowl ring.
Now the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens, Birk is 35 years old and in 15th NFL season. He's still waiting for a chance to be part of pro football's biggest spectacle.
"Two out of my first three years in the league I went to the NFC championship game," Birk said. "At that time, I probably didn't know what it meant or just how precious it was. And I haven't been back since."
Birk is one of 35 players on Baltimore's 53-man roster to have participated in an NFL playoff game. Only one, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, owns a Super Bowl ring.
For many of the Ravens veterans, this postseason run could represent their last chance to win a championship. Although Baltimore has reached the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, this team might be the best of them all.
After going 12-4 and winning the AFC North, the Ravens enter Sunday's home game against Houston (11-6) as the No. 2 seed in the conference. With a victory, Baltimore will move within one victory of booking a trip to Indianapolis for the Super Bowl.
"This is probably my best shot at it," Birk said. "My first year we were 15-1. That team and this team are the two best I've ever been on. The last three years we've been kind of building to this point. I think we've gotten better each year. Somebody my age, I realize this is probably my last and best shot at it."
Ravens safety Ed Reed joined the Ravens in 2002. He's received eight Pro Bowl nominations — including one this season — and has played in nine postseason games. But he's still waiting to experience the thrill of playing in the Super Bowl.
He isn't getting younger, either. Reed has several gray hairs and no longer finds the trip to Hawaii for the league's all-star game to be worth the bother.
"I couldn't tell you the last time I've been to the Pro Bowl," he said, "so that tells you how I feel about that."
Lewis has the ring. He wants another. Mostly, though, he wants his teammates to understand just how special it is to own one.
"That's what it's all about. You see these young kids that come in this business, and they don't really understand how hard it is to win a Super Bowl," Lewis said. "They don't understand how everything has to be in place, how your health is a big issue.
"We have the team to do it now. We don't have too many more excuses. Let's go do it right now. Then whatever else comes after that for all of your careers, you go enjoy it, but go win a championship. There are a lot of men that came in this business, and that's the one thing they have left this business without, and that's the ring. I have touched it before. To go back with this group of men could be a special thing."
Defensive end Cory Redding spent six seasons with Detroit and another with Seattle before joining the Ravens as a free agent in March 2010. He got his first taste of the playoffs last season, and now the 31-year-old is eager to take the next step.
"To have the opportunity to play in the playoffs two years in a row, having the chance to continue to fight for what you have always been dreaming of when you were a little kid — hoisting up that (Lombardi) Trophy — it's a privilege and an honor," he said. "Right now, myself and everybody included in that locker room, I'm telling everyone to soak everything in and don't take this thing for granted. Because we don't know when the next time we're going to be here."
Linebacker Jarret Johnson is in his ninth season. He was part of the Ravens team that advanced to the AFC title game in 2008, only to be turned back by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"You don't want to be the team that just has an 18-game season every year," Johnson said. "You don't want to be the team that's just satisfied with making the playoffs and then goes home early. We understand that you don't get this opportunity many times. You look at a guy like Dan Marino, Hall of Famer, he went one time. Every year, you can't take for granted the fact that you are in the playoffs. You have to take advantage of that because you don't know if you are ever going to make it again."