Inside the NFL’s best rivalry: Steelers vs Ravens

STEELERS

What’s the best rivalry in the NFL?

In the days of tube TVs, you could pick 49ers-Cowboys, or Packers-Bears, or Broncos-Raiders and not go wrong.

But on your HD widescreen in the 2010s, it’s no contest. One jumps out before all others.

The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens.

No other regular-season NFL rivalry means more. Or is more intense.
For five of the past six seasons, and eight of the past 10, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore has won the AFC North. One or the other has been in the AFC championship game in three of the past four years, and in 2008 they played each other in it.

One is always in the other’s way.

“There’s obviously a rivalry there, between us and them,” Steelers  safety Troy Polamalu said at training camp a few weeks ago. “Of course it’s very important to us.”

In so many aspects, the Ravens and Steelers are clones. And seemingly on the same annual trajectory now. Strangely, they’ve had identical regular-season records in each of the past three years — 9-7 in 2009, 12-4 in 2010, and 12-4 last year.

Their styles of play are nearly identical, too. All those old cliches apply. Hard-nosed defences. Smashmouth offences. Disciplined. Daunting. Blunder-averse. Sound.

In short, whether adorned in black and purple, or in black and gold, players on these teams knock you black and blue. And win most of the time.

As you’d expect from a pair of clones, their games against one another could hardly be more ferocious. Or more closely contested:

• Since the AFC North division was created in 2002, the Ravens have won 10 regular-season games from the Steelers, and the Steelers 10 from the Ravens.

• If it seems as though the score every time they play is 23-20, that’s because it actually has been three times in the past four years. Three other games in that span have been decided by a field goal, making it six of the past 10 — and two were decided in overtime.

• Only one of the past 10 Baltimore-Pittsburgh games has been decided by more than nine points — the opener last year, when the Ravens blew out the Steelers 35-7.

In the past two years, the rivalry has ramped up to an even higher level of intensity — and importance.

After the 2010 season, in which the teams took turns beating each other, the division-champion Steelers won the rubber match in the playoffs, 31-24.

The Ravens gained revenge last year, sweeping their annual home-and-home with the injury-ravaged Steelers to win the division.

With the 2012 season but days away, it’s the Steelers who have revenge on their minds.

Problem is, the injury bug already has taken big bites out of not only Pittsburgh’s roster, but Baltimore’s too.

The Ravens lost Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs in the spring with an Achilles tendon tear. He’s gone for at least the first six games, and likely for the year — a huge loss.

he Steelers last week lost their first-round draft pick for the year, offensive guard David DeCastro, after he wrecked his right knee. And promising third-round linebacker Sean Spence on Thursday destroyed his left knee in an even more gruesome injury, the latest key defender to go out.

But as the Steelers themselves showed convincingly last year, a team with resolve can overcome. At least to a point.

“Ya know, we still played well on defence, and we still went 12-4,” Polamalu told me. “But we obviously didn’t finish where we wanted to — that’s winning the Super Bowl.”

To be sure, both the Steelers and Ravens have that goal. Every year. And they make no apologies for it.

Ravens running back Ray Rice summed up the confidence — OK, arrogance — that these victory-spoiled teams now possess.

“I’ll be honest,” Rice told me at training camp. “If you don’t come into the season and say the No. 1 priority on your list is to win the Super Bowl, then quite frankly you’re not even going to contend.

“The playoffs, we expect to be there. We’ve been there. But getting to the

Super Bowl and winning it is the ultimate goal. And that should be the goal of all 32 teams — to win the Super Bowl. To win multiple Super Bowls.”

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley said this about his Steeler team’s over-riding 2012 goal: “Everybody here is ready to play. Everybody is ready to make that run back to the Super Bowl.”

For both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the big barricade blocking the on-ramp to the road to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans is — what else?

The other.

——

COACH vs COACH

JOHN HARBAUGH, Baltimore Ravens
AGE: 49
HEAD COACH SINCE: 2008
CHIEF ACCOLADE: Only NFL coach since merger with AFL in 1970 to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons.
REGULAR-SEASON RECORD: 44-20 (.688), tied for 1st in league (with Tomlin) among active coaches with 2+ years.
LAST FOUR YEARS: 49 wins including playoffs, tied for 2nd in league.
AFC FINALS: 2, lost both.

MIKE TOMLIN, Pittsburgh Steelers
AGE: 40
HEAD COACH SINCE: 2007
CHIEF ACCOLADE: Took Steelers to two Super Bowls in first four years, winning in ’08 to become youngest HC ever to do so (age 36).
REGULAR-SEASON RECORD: 55-25 (.688), tied for 1st in league (with Harbaugh) among active coaches with 2+ years.
LAST FOUR YEARS: 50 wins including playoffs, tied for 1st in league.
AFC FINALS: 2, won both.

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