PITTSBURGH – The defining images of the Baltimore Ravens’ blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers are clenched fists, bounties, death threats, broken bones, concussions and a broken nose stuffed with bloody wads of cotton.
It’s a primal grudge match where vicious hits evoke the most vivid memories, not touchdowns and interceptions.
As the Ravens (13-4) prepare to square off against the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) today in an AFC divisional playoff game today at Heinz Field, the nastiness hasn’t subsided.
“It’s a lot of hate there on the field,” Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison said. “On the field, anything that is legal in between the white lines is all game. I hate losing to them. I hate losing to anybody, but to them it’s a lot worse.”
The Steelers’ unofficial theme song by Styx is a fitting one, especially when these two heavyweights trade haymakers.
Whether it’s Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having his broken nose with an open-handed swat from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, middle linebacker Ray Lewis shattering running back Rashard Mendenhall’s clavicle, Ravens running back Willis McGahee being knocked unconscious by safety Ryan Clark during the AFC championship game two seasons ago or Bart Scott threatening to kill Hines Ward after being de-cleated by the hard-nosed wide receiver, this game rarely disappoints the football purists who love to watch violent collisions.
During the last meeting, Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain delivered a crushing blow to the head of tight end Heath Miller that gave him a major concussion. It was an expensive hit, costing McClain a $40,000 fine.
“To me, it’s definitely the best rivalry in sports,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “And when it comes to football, it’s the most physical game of the year. It’s going to be a physical gang fight, just like the first two games were. This is definitely Armageddon.”
Well, it’s not quite that serious even if it does feel that way when the Steelers’ stadium shakes like it’s been struck by lightning and the Terrible Towels are waving as the Iron City beer flows in the stands.
“The biblical description of Armageddon is the end of the world,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m hopeful that it doesn’t take place on Saturday. I think we’re all looking forward to the sun coming up on Sunday morning and I’m pretty sure it will.
“I think he’s just saying that it’s obviously going to be a tight football game and you are right. There’s always so much at stake and I think that the ramifications of this last game were huge for us. Having to come to Pittsburgh for this game, it’s just going to be huge for us.”
So, knuckle up, put up your dukes and buckle your chin strap.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” offensive guard Ben Grubbs said. “It’s going to be a train wreck.”
The Ravens have never defeated the Steelers in the postseason, losing two years ago in the AFC title game and in the divisional round in nine years ago.
The teams split the season series this year, but Roethlisberger wasn’t a part of the first game in Pittsburgh and outdueled Joe Flacco during a 13-10 win in Baltimore on Dec. 5.
Dating back to 2003, the teams have each scored 302 points against each other.
It’s that close!
Now, here comes Round III.
Roethlisberger is 8-2 all-time against the Ravens, winning six consecutive games against the Steelers’ chief AFC North rival.
Flacco has won just two of his seven starts against the Steelers, but has yet to defeat them when Roethlisberger’s quarterbacking the Steelers.
"I think he’s beaten us every time he’s been under center," Suggs said. "That’s definitely my bigger problem.”
The winner of this game will advance to the AFC championship game to play the victor of Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets.
Seeded fifth and owning an impressive 30-7 shellacking of a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round, the Ravens have ambitions on going to Dallas for the Super Bowl.
Having won five consecutive games since losing Pittsburgh in Baltimore, the Ravens are looking to ride the momentum to propel themselves past the second-seeded Steelers.
“You can argue Atlanta and New England, but anyone could argue the winner of this game will most likely go on to win the Super Bowl,” Suggs said.
Suggs has cast himself as the villain of the series all week.
He even wore a T-shirt where a Raven bird literally flipped the Steelers the bird.
“It’s about what is on the line," Suggs said. "They call it Armageddon as the fight between good and evil. I am a big Star Wars fan and the emperor said, ‘Evil is only a point of view.’ I guess it is from whose point of view it’s coming from.”
What makes the rivalry so fierce between these blue-collar teams from old Rust Belt cities?
They’re practically mirror images of each other.
Both teams believe in the foundations of smash-mouth, fundamental football: old-fashioned blocking and tackling.
“We’re very similar teams,” offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. “They’re physical as hell and so are we. It’s always a close game and going to be one of those dogfights like every time. They’re swarming to the ball. Their guys are relentless.
“I wouldn’t say we hate them. I respect the hell out of all those guys over there because of how they play. When the ball is snapped, you definitely want to kick their ass and they expect it and that’s what we expect to do.”
The ultimate compliment exchanged between the two teams was when former Ravens coach Brian Billick said he hated Ward, but that he could play for him anytime.
That opinion isn’t confined to Ward.
“Yes, there’s tons of guys on their team that could play here and the coaches would like them, we would like them,” Yanda said. “I’m sure guys could say that about guys on our team too that we’re similar in how we play I think it comes down to heart. I think everybody has their hearts in it, Pittsburgh and the Ravens.”
Both teams believe in constructing their teams through the draft.
And both invest heavily in their respective personnel departments, which are manned by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and Steelers vice president of football operations Kevin Colbert.
And both franchises have strong ownership with Steve Bisciotti in Baltimore and the venerable Rooney family in Pittsburgh.
“Two first-class organizations from the top down, you think back historically, you’ve got the Rooneys and you’ve got Art Modell,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s the roots of the National Football League right there. And I know the Rooneys and the Modells are just great friends and basically pioneered so many things in this league and built the league. That’s probably where it starts.
“Steve Bisciotti sets the tone here now, and I think he’s built on Art Modell’s legacy and added his personality and his principles to it, which have made us even stronger. Ozzie Newsome, obviously, so strong organizations start at the top.”
To win this game, the Ravens will have to vanquish Roethlisberger for the first time in four years.
A two-time Super Bowl winner, Roethlisberger always seems to make the clutch play that his team needs to edge the Ravens.
In his last five games against Baltimore, Roethlisberger has thrown five touchdowns with three interceptions while Flacco has been intercepted seven times against six touchdowns.
"You talk about Ben and what he’s meant to the Steelers,” Harbaugh said. “We’re hoping to get Joe to that kind of perch where he can take over games just by his talent and personality.
"It seems like we see great quarterbacks a lot. We’ve beaten our fair share, but we haven’t beaten him. So, it’s our turn."
For the entire season, Roethlisberger has thrown only five interceptions. And that includes a current streak of his past 158 throws.
Now, the Ravens are hoping to end his mastery of them.