Steelers, Ravens in constant battle for division supremacy
There is something different about any Ravens-Steelers game, and the players feel it the first time they experience one.
Oh, do they feel it.
“This is the sorest game you come out of,” said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who spends those twice-a-season slugfests going up against man-mountain nose tackle Haloti Ngata. “Everybody cranks it up for that game.”
Especially the decibel level, as they will Sunday night when the Ravens (7-2) meet the Steelers (6-3) at Heinz Field for first place in the AFC North.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace said Ravens-Steelers games sound differently, too. The back-and-forth verbal sparring is more intense, more personal than for other games. And the hitting has a different ring to it in an every game-means-a-lot rivalry that is almost universally recognized as the NFL's most contested, most physical and most punishing.
“Every game, there's bad blood,” former NFL safety Darren Sharper said. “They honestly do not like each other because they're always having to knock each other off.”
It's the only NFL rivalry in which the games shouldn't start with a whistle but, like in boxing's olden days, with the clanging of a bell.
Round 1 is Sunday. Round 2 is only two weeks away, on Dec. 2 in Baltimore.
“In terms of modern-day rivalries, it is No. 1,” NFL Network analyst Steve Wyche said.”There isn't a bigger one because it has been so consistent. These are perennial playoff teams who tend to meet each other in the playoffs. Every game is close or has some impact on the playoff picture.”
Close? Five of the past six regular-season games have been decided by three points, including both of the Ravens' last-minute wins at Heinz the past two seasons.
As Wyche said, this game almost always means more than the so-called “paper” or “traditional” rivalries.
“I don't think people get as worked up for a Bears-Packers or a Patriots-Jets game because they aren't consistently fighting to get to the playoffs together,” Wyche said. “Absolutely, they are the No. 1 NFL rivalry right now. I don't think there is anything close.”
This is the rivalry, after all, in which Ngata broke Ben Roethlisberger's nose with a blow to the head, and his coach all but laughed about it afterward. John Harbaugh said, “I was glad we broke his nose.”
“Yeah, we hate them. That's pretty much it. We don't like them at all,” Steelers running back Isaac Redman said.
There will be a few elements missing for this Ravens-Steelers game because of injuries and retirements — namely Roethlisberger, who's out with his rib/chest injuries; Hines Ward; Ray Lewis; and Troy Polamalu. This will be only the fourth game of the 32 in series history that Lewis will miss.
Regardless, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said, “This game sends a shockwave through the NFL.”
Ravens versus Steelers was spawned out of the Steelers' birthright rivalry against the Browns.
The Ravens weren't permitted to take any of their history or records with them when they relocated from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996 — a traditional franchise was treated like an expansion team — but their games against Pittsburgh retain the DNA of those Browns-Steelers days.
It's the modern-day equivalent of those Raiders-Steelers games of old, when the winner often was the last team standing. In 2008, Ravens running back Willis McGahee spent the night in a Pittsburgh hospital after being knocked out by a Ryan Clark hit.
The series started becoming what it is today in 2000, the Ravens' lone Super Bowl-winning season. After they beat the Steelers, 16-0, in the last season opener at Three Rivers Stadium, tight end Shannon Sharpe said: “This is probably the worst in my 11 years I've seen a Steelers team look. ... They've got a lot of internal turmoil.”
The talking hasn't ceased since in what Ward calls the “black and blue” rivalry.
The following season, Sharpe referred to Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress as “Plaxiglass” after Burress said the Ravens' defense was Lewis “and a bunch of followers.” Burress got some payback with a touchdown catch during the Steelers' 27-10 playoff win.
In 2008, Rashard Mendenhall boasted in a text message to Ray Rice that he expected to have a big game against the Ravens. Bad idea. Lewis slammed into Mendenhall so hard during the Monday night game, he ended the rookie's season with a fractured shoulder.
Suggs later said the Ravens had bounties on both Ward and Mendenhall; the NFL investigated but took no action.
Suggs once wore a T-shirt disparaging the Steelers to the start of training camp and called Ward a “cheap-shot artist.” Last season, after the Ravens beat the Steelers, 35-7, in Baltimore, Suggs said: “God can have his (Roethlisberger's) soul. His (rear end) belongs to me.”
Not exactly Buccaneers versus Dolphins, is it?
The Steelers lead the series, 18-14 (10-6 in Pittsburgh, 8-8 in Baltimore), but the Ravens won at Heinz Field each of the past two seasons on last-minute Joe Flacco TD passes to T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2010) and Torrey Smith (2011).
The Steelers are 3-0 in the playoffs, also winning, 23-14, in the 2008 season AFC Championship Game and 31-24 via a second-half comeback in a 2010 season AFC divisional playoff.
Even if all the back-and-forth jawing is eliminated, the Ravens-Steelers rivalry would be meaningful simply because the games almost always decide something.
The teams tied for the AFC North title with 12-4 records last season, but Baltimore won the tiebreaker based on its head-to-head sweep. In 2009, the teams tied at 9-7, but Baltimore earned an AFC wild card and the Steelers went home.
“You have to experience it to understand it,” Harbaugh said.
Or, as Suggs said: “It's when you can taste the blood in your mouth that you know it's on. ... As soon as we walk into their stadium, they're going to lock the gates.”
“They consider themselves the bullies on the block; we consider ourselves to be the bullies on the block,” Steelers lineman Willie Colon said. “It's about time we met. It's that time of the year. So let's get it on.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.