What has made the Ravens-Steelers rivalry one of the best in all of sports was the high stakes involved and the genuine dislike between the teams. I question whether these are storylines for Sunday's game at Heinz Field.
When the Ravens and Steelers have played recently, they were either battling for first place in the AFC North or one was trying to knock the other out of the top spot. Or, as was the case five seasons ago, they were playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, neither the Ravens (3-3) nor the Steelers (1-4) will be in first place, and neither will have a winning record. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’ll be the first time since Week 16 of the 2009 season that these rivals will play when both are outside the top 10 in ESPN.com’s NFL Power Rankings. This time, it's the No. 12 Ravens versus the No. 27 Steelers.
“I don’t think records are as important in this game from an intensity standpoint,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “If nothing else, I think it heightens it. There’s a certain sense of urgency based on the position that the teams are in, I’m sure.”
So there is something at stake. It's just not superiority this time. It's a matter of survival.
A loss would drop the Steelers to 1-5, a hole not many teams can climb out of. A loss by Baltimore would mark the Ravens' third defeat in four games and make them the first defending Super Bowl champion to have a losing record through seven games since the 2006 Steelers.
"There is just something special about this game -- this game right here in the NFL, Ravens-Steelers," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "My bet is we’ll probably get the other 30 teams watching it, regardless of how they fare. Everybody’s going to be pretty much looking forward to this one.”
Why this has been a must-watch game is because the lifeblood of this rivalry has been bad blood. I remember Ravens cornerback James Trapp stomping cleats-first on Plaxico Burress. I remember Steelers linebacker Joey Porter running out to the Ravens' buses after a game to pick a fight with Ray Lewis. I remember Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward leveling Ed Reed, and Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson doing the same to Ward.
Now, Ward and linebacker James Harrison are gone for Pittsburgh, and Lewis, Reed and Bernard Pollard are no longer here for Baltimore. There's a lack of history for many of the Ravens. For 18 Baltimore players -- fully one-third of the team -- this will be their first game against the Steelers as members of the Ravens.
Does the same animosity exist between the two teams?
"The look of this movie is a little bit different than what we’ve seen before," Suggs said. "But like I said, it’s Ravens-Steelers, Heinz Field, at 4:25 p.m. And once you get into it, it’s going to feel like Ravens-Steelers.”
Maybe Suggs is right and I'm wrong. When these two teams kick off Sunday, it will seem like the same old rivalry after the first vicious hit. As of right now, it feels like two teams searching for an identity and desperate to get their season on track.