What makes Steelers-Ravens special? Close calls and 'car wrecks'

When safety Eric Weddle played for the then-San Diego Chargers, he would look at the calendar for the nationally televised Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game and circle it.

"That's the game everyone watches because of the competitiveness, the fight and the passion between the two teams," said Weddle, who is set to start in his fifth Ravens-Steelers game on Sunday night. "It's just one of the best games to play in."

The faces of the NFL's most heated rivalry have changed from Ray Lewis and Hines Ward to Terrell Suggs and Ben Roethlisberger.

But what made this divisional feud so good a decade ago -- the physical hits, dramatic finishes and big-game ramifications -- still exists today.

Asked if it's fun to play in this rivalry, Roethlisberger answered, "Yes and no."

The Steelers quarterback has enjoyed competing against the likes of Lewis, Suggs and Ed Reed but ... "you feel like you’ve been in about five or six car wrecks."

Why this has been a must-watch game is because the lifeblood of this rivalry has been bad blood.

In 2002, Ravens cornerback James Trapp stomped cleats-first on Plaxico Burress. A year later, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter ran out to the Ravens' buses after a game to pick a fight with Lewis.

Over the past decade, Roethlisberger has had his nose broken by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and Lewis ended Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall's season by breaking a shoulder.

"It’s more than just winning and losing a game," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It’s beating a division opponent up a little bit, so they still have to feel the effects the next week."

For many, Sunday night will be an initiation into the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. There are 18 rookies or newcomers on the Ravens this season, which is one-third of the 53-man roster.

"You heard John [Harbaugh] say, ‘Once a Raven, always a Raven?’ That is true, after you’ve played in the Pittsburgh game, because that’s when you get your badge of honor that I’m a Raven," Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said.

To prepare newcomers for the intensity of this game, Suggs and Weddle spoke to the team this week.

"It’s just about keeping your composure and just [staying] cool, calm and collected when pressure gets up there," Weddle said. "The energy, the momentum tends to swing one way or another -- that’s when you have to refocus in and just keep your composure. Just do what your job is told to do. Don’t go crazy and try to make your play across the field when you’re not supposed to -- that’s when you get beat. Keeping your composure will be key to go into this place and try to get the win."

For those who've played in this game multiple times, this rivalry still holds a special place.

"It’s one of the few times, I think, during the year that you actually step on the field and say to yourself, ‘Man, I’m an NFL football player and this is exactly what it should feel like,'" Flacco said.

Closest rivalry in the NFL

Ravens offensive tackle James Hurst was asked whether the records of the Ravens or Steelers come into play in a rivalry like this.

"It doesn’t matter," Hurst said. "It’s going to be a three-point game -- something like that. We know that going in."

The nastiest series in the league is also the most hotly contested one. The average margin of victory in 23 games between the Ravens and Steelers since 2008 (including the playoffs) is 7.2 points. That's the smallest of any of the 49 rivalries that have met at least 10 times over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Why have the games been so close?

“I think it’s familiarity," Roethlisberger said. "I think it’s AFC North. It’s two teams that are very like-minded -- defense, tough; offense, you’re just trying to get points when you’re playing against each other. So, I just think it’s a lot of that."

In the past decade, 16 of the 20 games between Baltimore and Pittsburgh have been decided by one score. In fact, 13 of those have been decided by three points or fewer.

"It's a big game and both teams know that," Ravens guard Alex Lewis said. "Coming into the game, everyone is on their 'A' game. It's always going to be close when it's like that."

New era for rivalry?

It looks like this old-school rivalry is getting a new-age reboot.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh are no longer relying on defense and handing the ball off 30 times to Jamal Lewis or Jerome Bettis. The winning team needs to score more than 20 points these days.

When the teams last met, they combined for 77 points -- the most ever in this 22-year-old grudge match.

Even though many expect more high-scoring affairs, Flacco doesn't believe that has changed the core of this series.

"I think they’re still physical," Flacco said. "It doesn’t matter. We’ve been able to do a few things on them, and they have too. But no matter how you cut it, it doesn’t matter if it’s high scoring or if it’s a 9-6-type game. The [physicality] can still be there in either of those games."

The Ravens enter this game as the NFL's fifth-highest-scoring team, averaging 32.3 points per game. The Steelers are not far behind at No. 7, scoring 29.3 points.

Could this be another game in which Baltimore and Pittsburgh light up the scoreboard?

"If our offense is moving, it's hard to stop. The same thing with theirs -- with Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger," Lewis said. "If their offense is clicking and our offense is clicking, it could be a shootout."