By Jason Keidel
That bone-crunching, eerily violent game between the Bengals and Steelers on Monday night still echoes across the week. It represented the glory and gory of pro football, with players knocked down, knocked out, and even a player paralyzed below the waist. Of course, our prayers go to Ryan Shazier (and his family), the Steelers linebacker who went limp after a rather routine tackle in the first half.
While that game might suggest that Bengals-Steelers is the most toxic rivalry in the NFL, it’s not even the most heated rivalry in the division.
That would be the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, who seem to play for some slice of AFC North crown every year since Bill Cowher revived the Steelers and Ray Lewis carried the Ravens. It’s got all the bona fides of a football turf war.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are two hardscrabble, blue-collar towns that exploded during the postwar boom then fell on hard times as their native industries migrated overseas. Baltimore even lost their beloved NFL team, the iconic Colts, of Unitas and Berry and Mackey. The town will be forever scarred by the site of those Mayflower trucks snaking out of the city in the snow, sans a word or goodbye from the Irsay family.
But Baltimore got a team, and a darn good one. And with Lewis they drafted a cornerstone player, much like the Giants did 15 years earlier when they bagged Lawrence Taylor. There was a Ravens renaissance, with two Super Bowls bookending Lewis’s Hall of Fame career. And despite firing the architect of their first Lombardi Trophy, Brian Billick, they actually upgraded at head coach with John Harbaugh, the more muted and tolerable brother of Jim.
It feels like the NFL cosmos are aligned when the Steelers (10-2) and Ravens (7-5) play in December with ample skin in the game. And while Pittsburgh has a healthy three-game lead in the division, the Ravens can at least make them hear some faint footsteps with a win.
After opening with a 4-5 record, the Ravens have won three straight, including an impressive road win against the Packers and last Sunday’s 44-20 drubbing of the playoff-contending Detroit Lions. The home-team Steelers have won seven straight, and with a win will keep pace with the Patriots and still own the top seed in the AFC playoff picture.
And while the rosters have mutated over the years, two of the main protagonists over the last 10 years are still under center. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are responsible for a combined three Super Bowl wins in their careers. And though neither team would have those Lombardi Trophies without either quarterback, the teams have largely been defined by defenses during their epic playoff runs.
Flanking Big Ben may be the best RB in the NFL, Le’Veon Bell, and WR Antonio Brown, with both making highlight runs and receptions almost every week.
The Steelers rank fourth in passing, at 264.5 yards per game, and seventh in total yards, at 367.6 yards per game. Even still, the Steelers have made strides the last few years on defense, and enter Sunday with the fourth-stingiest defense in the league, yielding just 294.7 total yards a game. And only four NFL clubs have allowed fewer points than Pittsburgh (213).
For the Ravens, it’s largely about defense. Challenging Big Ben and Antonio Brown will be the league’s third-ranked pass defense. And Baltimore is one of the four teams that has allowed fewer points than the Steelers. So expect a healthy dose of Le’Veon Bell, who will run against the 17th-ranked run defense, with the Ravens giving up 112.7 yards per week on the ground.
But stats don’t tell the story of the teams or the towns or the healthy rancor between them. Unlike the Steelers-Bengals games, which challenge all-time records for flags and penalty yards, with medical teams on anxious standby, the Steelers and Ravens have a healthy gridiron respect for each other.
Since 2001, the Ravens have made the playoffs 10 times, while the Steelers have played in 11. It speaks to their sound systems, fine coaching, and pristine player development. There’s something refreshing about watching the stoic Harbaugh and the wildly emotional Mike Tomlin pacing up and down each sideline. And, fittingly enough, they play each other this Sunday with myriad playoff implications on the line.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.