BALTIMORE — Whether they clash in the playoffs or early September, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are on the same field, emotions run high and the collisions are violent.
That’s what makes it the best rivalry in the NFL.
The last time they met, a trip to the AFC championship game hung in the balance. The consequences won’t be nearly as significant in Sunday’s opener because, after all, each team will still have 15 games left in the regular season.
Try telling that to Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“The stakes are the same. The stakes are always the same,” Suggs said.
Part of the incentive to win Sunday is taking an early lead in the AFC North. Most of all, it’s about beating a fierce rival.
“It’s always a very physical game, it’s usually close and usually very low scoring,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It’s two very, very good defenses going against each other, it’s in the division. So I think that adds a little something extra to it.”
The names change from year to year, but the intensity remains the same. Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg — all of whom played a significant role with Baltimore last season — are gone.
It makes no difference to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has been a participant in this heated duel since 1996.
“I tell people all the time that there are no better games to play for your legacy,” Lewis said. “When people across the world hear Baltimore and Pittsburgh, everyone is going to have a front row seat because they know exactly what they’re going to get. The players and the people outside the league really care for you because of playing in those rivalries.”
Redskins-Cowboys? Packers-Bears? Anyone who’s been a part of Steelers-Ravens knows there is no comparison to this rivalry.
“It’s the best in sports,” Suggs declared. “Everything the fans want to see out of a rivalry is in this game — the hatred between the two teams, the physicality between the two teams.”
Steelers-Ravens. It’s a double chin-strap game for all the participants, and even that occasionally isn’t enough. In the AFC championship two years ago, McGahee was knocked senseless from a hit by Ryan Clark. Last year in Baltimore, Roethlisberger had his nose broken on the game’s third play.
“I keep telling our guys to stop all the Tweeting stuff, because I’m the one who feels the brunt of it — not our defensive guys,” Roethlisberger said. “I hate playing them, and I hate going down there to play them. But that’s not a knock on them. It’s because they’re so good. I guess if there’s a good thing about playing them first, it’s a chance to get that out of the way and move on to the rest of the season. I guess it’s almost like its own season when we play those guys.”
Roethlisberger has won seven straight starts against Baltimore, but it hasn’t been easy. Five of the last eight games between the teams have been decided by three points, another was 13-9, and Pittsburgh rallied behind Roethlisberger for a 31-24 win last January to end the Ravens’ season.
Close, physical games between two similar teams. That’s what Steelers-Ravens is all about.
Former Cowboys center Andre Gurode, who signed with Baltimore last weekend, didn’t need more than a couple of days to learn what facing the Steelers means to the Ravens.
“I asked a few of the guys on the team about the rivalry and how deep the disgust between the teams exists. That’s a nice way of saying it,” Gurode said. “The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry is pretty serious, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything like a rivalry like this.”
Nor has Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, whose blitz against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco forced a fumble that enabled the Steelers to win in Baltimore last season — a key victory that got the Steelers home-field advantage in the postseason. That’s what Suggs meant when he said the stakes are always the same.
Asked if Steelers-Ravens is something like facing UCLA or Notre Dame, Polamalu, who played at Southern California, replied, “That was so long ago. Rivalries are just that. It’s the biggest thing at the present moment, and the Steelers and the Ravens are the biggest thing going right now in the NFL.”
It’s been that way for a long time, actually. Lewis remembers when the Ravens beat Pittsburgh 16-0 in the 2000 opener, a victory that started Baltimore on its way to its lone Super Bowl title. You think that game meant nothing to the Ravens because it was played in September?
“I’ll never say this is too early,” Lewis said. “It’s an AFC team, it’s in your division. Deal with what you’ve got to deal with right now.”
Lewis and Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward have been going at it for years. Neither of them are ready to invite the other over for dinner.
“I respect all those guys, but I wish Ray would retire one of these years,” Ward said. “They’re great competitors, and we have a great rivalry with them. It’s going to be a hard-fought game, and in the AFC North it always comes down to either us or them. In the playoffs, we got the best of them the past couple of times. So, with that, and the media coverage between the two teams with the trash-talking, those things are what makes the rivalry what it is.”
It’s the best the NFL has to offer.