OWINGS MILLS — The violent tenor anticipated in tonight’s latest AFC North showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers was built through a rivalry traditionally defined by brutal hits, harsh words, alleged bounties as well as the odd death threat over the years.
“I think it’s war, all-out war,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. “The rivalry itself, it’s just pure respect, but pure hatred. The players, we respect each other, but there’s genuine dislike.
“We know when Baltimore and Pittsburgh get together, it’s all-out war when it comes down to playing. Win, lose or draw, you will come out of this game hurting.”
And the Ravens were provided with an unexpected boost in this blood rivalry with the surprising news Saturday that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been ruled out by doctors due to concerns about the lingering effects of a concussion with exercise-induced headaches despite practicing all week without limitations.
Now, the Ravens (5-5) will be looking to intimidate and exploit replacement quarterback Dennis Dixon as he makes his NFL starting debut.
The development could give the Ravens a significant edge as they fight with the Steelers (6-4) to remain in the thick of a tightly packed AFC wild-card race.
And the Ravens don’t lack for motivational fuel after being vanquished by the Steelers in the AFC title game for their third loss last season to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
“Absolutely, it’s always good to hurt their chances and we’ve got our backs against the wall,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Right now, we’ve dug ourselves in a hole. They’re obviously in a better situation than we are, but they’re also in a must-win deal. You’ve got two similar teams, so this one might be a little bit nasty.”
It was definitely nasty during a frigid AFC championship game last winter at Heinz Field.
Ravens running back Willis McGahee was briefly knocked unconscious by Steelers safety Ryan Clark by a devastating, vicious hit.
Earlier last season, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis broke running back Rashard Mendenhall’s shoulder.
The stakes of this game and the presence of the Steelers’ top-ranked defense and a Ravens defense that’s beginning to discover its old swagger again practically assures that this game could warrant an ‘R’ rating.
"It’s two physical football teams, and they’re going together head-to-head,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “Each of us wants to prove which is the better team and which is the more physical team.
“I think the way you do that is you go out there and win. I think both sides enjoy it. Whichever side wins is going to enjoy it a little more."
The Ravens had been fully expecting Roethlisberger to tough it out and start, but new awareness regarding concussions and rules being passed by the league governing head injuries likely led to this decision.
And Dixon is a relatively unknown commodity.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder has only played in one regular-season game, completing his lone pass against the Cleveland Browns last year for three yards.
A fifth-round pick from Oregon, Dixon was a Heisman candidate who tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a senior. Known for his mobility, he completed 18 of 35 passes during the preseason this year and ran for a 47-yard touchdown last year as a rookie.
The Steelers promoted Tyler Palko from the practice squad to the active roster to back up Dixon.
Ironically, Palko could possibly play against Flacco after being chosen by Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt over Flacco as his quarterback. That prompted Flacco’s transfer to the University of Delaware before becoming the Ravens’ first-round draft pick.
With backup Charlie Batch out after undergoing wrist surgery this week, Roethlisberger might be in place as the emergency third quarterback.
So, Dixon will get indoctrinated into the rivalry tonight at M&T Bank Stadium before a national audience.
"It’s very intense,” running back Ray Rice said. “I’m new to it still. But, obviously, it seems as if it doesn’t matter if we were playing for a championship or playoffs, the Steelers are the Steelers and the Ravens are always going to be the Ravens. It’s always going to be a rivalry. You’ll see things that typically don’t happen in normal games."
Like cornerback Frank Walker allegedly spitting in the mouth of punter Mitch Berger last season, which he described as a “slobber moment,” or former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatening to kill Ward a few years ago after a series of borderline downfield blocks.
Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers will likely run the football more than usual.
They’ll have to rely on Mendenhall and fellow running back Willie Parker instead of wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace and Ward.
Regardless of the game plan, the intensity doesn’t figure to be reduced.
At least based on last year’s dramatics.
The Steelers won the first meeting in overtime after falling behind by 10 points by halftime.
Then, they won the second game on Holmes’ controversial last-minute touchdown catch that was disputed by the Ravens.
And the Ravens lost the championship game as Steelers safety Troy Polamalu returned a Flacco interception for a touchdown.
The three losses were all narrow defeats.
“It’s a big game for us," Johnson said. “They definitely finished us, especially in that championship game. Those guys turned it on in the fourth quarter, and we kind of wore out. In order to beat the Steelers, you have to play four full quarters."
“You’d better do it this week. If there is any team in the league that you got to finish, it’s these guys."
Polamalu will be sidelined with a knee injury tonight, and Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs isn’t expected to play due to a sprained knee.
“These are two rough-and-tumble teams who always provide fireworks when they play," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I think anybody that appreciates the game of football, particularly NFL football, has a level of respect for this rivalry."
Ratcheting up the stakes of this game is the fact that the Steelers have lost two consecutive games, a fact that prompted Tomlin to label this game as ‘Redemption Sunday.’
And the Ravens have lost five of seven games and are at risk of falling out of playoff contention unless they begin winning again.
“It’s hard to feel a rivalry unless you’ve been in the middle of it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “After having been in it for three games, I feel like I’ve been in for a lifetime. Obviously, they’ve got a little bit of an edge on us so far in that span so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.