The Steelers/Ravens rivalry--arguably the best and most intense in all of sports--will be renewed right out of the gate as the two teams will face off in week one of the 2011 season in Baltimore.
The Steelers and Ravens have had many memorable clashes over the past ten seasons. I don't know how week one will turn out, but I do know that the Steelers have almost always had the upper hand against Baltimore when the stakes were at their highest.
A lot of people fear the Ravens because they can be a pretty intimidating group.....on defense, at least. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, etc. often strike-fear into the hearts of opponents with their hard-hitting, fierce style of play. However, I've learned, over the years, not to fear the Baltimore Ravens really at all. You see, it takes an all-around team to dominate a league over a period of time. Yes, you can be good and maybe even win a Super Bowl (like the Ravens somehow managed to do in 2000 with Trent Dilfer under center), but the truly balanced football teams with elite defenses AND offenses are the ones that are able to win more than one Lombardi.
There was a time when I really did fear the Ravens, however. And that was the week leading-up to the 2001 Divisional playoffs, when the Ravens were set to march into Heinz Field with their 2000 Super Bowl "swagger" fully operational.
In 2000, the Ravens won a Super Bowl with a stifling, opportunistic defense, a great special teams unit, and a sound running attack led by rookie Jamal Lewis. Dilfer, who didn't even start the first half of the season, appeared to be just along for the ride.
The Ravens were so impressed with Dilfer, they decided to release him following the championship run because, you know, that's what most teams do right after they win a Super Bowl.
In all fairness to the Ravens, I have to give them credit for at least recognizing that Dilfer wasn't the answer and trying to upgrade at the most important position on the team. And who was their answer for an upgrade at quarterback for the Super Bowl Ravens? Elvis Grbac!
The 2001 season was a bit of a resurgence for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they recaptured the playoff magic from the 90's after missing the postseason for three-straight seasons. The Steelers would go on to win their first AFC Central crown in four years.
After losing a hard-fought battle against Baltimore in November at Heinz Field thanks to four missed field goals by Kris Brown, the Steelers turned the tables and defeated the World Champion Ravens in Baltimore on December 16th. Even though there were still three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Steelers were able to clinch the AFC Central with the victory. It was a great night. The Steelers knocked off the intimidating Ravens and were now the kings of the division.
Pittsburgh would finish the season 13-3 and earn the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. The Ravens finished at 10-6 and were the 5th seed.
Even though Pittsburgh prevailed in the division, I had an uneasy feeling about the Ravens once the playoffs began. After all, the previous year, they were able to take the wild card route to the Super Bowl as the 4th seed in the AFC. Baltimore defeated the Broncos at home and then went into Tennessee and Oakland and shut those two teams down on the way to the Super Bowl. It didn't matter that Trent Dilfer was the quarterback. It didn't matter that Baltimore had few offensive-threats to scare their opponents. The Ravens' defense was just so dominant for that stretch and almost willed the team to its first World Championship. The Ravens had a team built for taking the wild card route to the Super Bowl, Elvis Grbac, be damned. They did it in 2000, why couldn't they do it again?
Since the Steelers had earned a bye for the wild card round, I could sit back, relax, and watch some stress-free playoff football. Ah, but there was stress. I didn't want the Ravens to make it to Heinz Field for the divisional round the following week. Saturday night, I cheered for the Jets, the 6th seed in the AFC, to knock-off the Raiders. If the Jets won, they would have to play the Steelers. I liked that idea much better.
Unfortunately, the Jets didn't win and that meant that the winner of the Ravens/Dolphins Sunday match-up would be coming to Heinz Field the following weekend.
The Ravens used their 2000 script to completely dominate Jay Fiedler and the Dolphins, 20-3, and earn their way back to Heinz Field for the rubber match in the Divisional playoffs.
After this game, there was talk that the Ravens had regained their "swagger." Despite struggling a bit in 2001, they were the big, bad Ravens, once again, and were going to sweep through the playoffs like they did the previous year.
Rumor has it that the Ravens took so much pride in being "road warriors" in those years that they even started a custom of "marking their territory" by urinating on opposing stadiums. I don't know if this was done on the field of play, in the empty stands before the game, in the locker room, or even on the actual stadium itself. I don't know if the entire team did this or if there was a designated "marker." Can you picture Tony Siragusa...nevermind. That's just gross. I wonder if fans around the NFL knew what they were stepping into (perhaps literally) when they went to watch their favorite home team take on the visiting Ravens in those days.
In the back of my mind, I thought the Steelers were the better team. Yes, the Ravens' had a dominating defense led by a young Ray Lewis, the legendary Rod Woodson, and the enormous Tony Siragusa. Yes, that Ravens' defense could eat an average quarterback for lunch--and even though Kordell Stewart was having a career-year and certainly better than Jay Fiedler, "Slash" wasn't too far-removed from his recent struggles of the late-90's. But the Steelers were able to move the ball pretty well against the Ravens in 2001, amassing more than 800 total combined yards in the two meetings, and I felt confident they would be able to replicate the same high level of offensive success for a third time.
However, as the week leading up to the game progressed, I started to buy-into the hype of Baltimore's mystique and their "swagger." Steelers fans and local media were afraid of what was going to happen in that playoff game. Even my then boss at the University of Pittsburgh was feeling pretty uneasy. The Friday before the game, he told me, "In all my years of following the Steelers, this is the worst I have ever felt about a playoff match-up." Now, this was a man who was a member of the famed Thomas Starzl transplant team in the early 80's. He was pretty intelligent and a bit of a renaissance man. He could sing, he could act, he officiated high school basketball games and was a defensive consultant for his old high school football team. He was around for the Super 70's and Pitt's awesomely-talented college football teams of the late 70's and early 80's. The man clearly knew what he was talking about.
My boss telling me he had a bad feeling about the game sent me over the edge. My common sense may have been controlling things earlier in the week, but by the weekend, the power of suggestion had taken control of my mind, and I was convinced the Ravens were going to come to Pittsburgh and throttle the Steelers in the first ever playoff game at Heinz Field.
Thankfully, the morning of the game against the Ravens, I was listening to some pre-game festivities on the radio, and the fans were going crazy. My fears were replaced by excitement and I was completely jacked!
Unfortunately, my fears resurfaced right before kickoff when it was announced that Jerome Bettis wouldn't be able to play because of the effects of a botched pre-game injection for his nagging groin-injury.
I couldn't believe it. If anyone could stand toe-to-toe with the intimidating Ravens' defense and laugh in their faces as he bowled them over, it was The Bus.
Amos Zereoue would be starting in Bettis' place in the backfield, talk about an uneasy feeling.
However, the Steelers had a pretty dominant defense in their own right and would quickly make the Ravens understand that the reunion with their 2000 "swagger" would be very brief as Pittsburgh forced three turnovers in the first 30 minutes and held Baltimore's offense in-check the entire afternoon, only allowing 150 total yards.
Funny thing I remember about cornerback Chad Scott's interception of Grbac early in the game was the huge delay between the television and the radio. My uncle and I were watching the game with the sound down on the television so we could hear Bill, Tunch, and Myron describe the action on the radio. As we watched Grbac's pass sail through the air on tv, Bill Hillgrove was already describing Scott's interception on the radio.
I know this might seem blasphemous, but I persuaded my uncle to turn the radio off and turn the sound up on the television. I just couldn't take the delay.
That first half was one of the most enjoyable I have ever experienced as a fan. The Steelers jumped out to a 10-0 lead thanks to a Kris Brown field goal following the Scott interception and a one-yard touchdown run by Zereoue later in the first quarter.
After Stewart was intercepted early in the 2nd quarter, the Ravens had the ball inside the 10-yardline. It looked like Baltimore would get right back in it, but safety Brent Alexander returned the favor and intercepted Grbac in the end zone. Zereoue had another short touchdown run, and Brown kicked his second-field goal of the day to give the Steelers a 20-3 halftime lead.
Things were a bit-shaky in the second half as the Ravens got back in the game thanks to an 88-yard punt-return by Jermaine Lewis in the 3rd quarter. My uncle and I just looked at each other in disgust because that return was the latest in a long-line of special teams mistakes in 2001. Pittsburgh was in complete control of the game, but the special teams had to go and screw it up. Now, the Ravens were only down, 20-10, with plenty of time remaining.
We had some fear that the Ravens' defense and special teams would seize control of the game. But fear not, Kordell Stewart hooked-up with Plaxico Burress early in the 4th-quarter on a 32-yard touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh back up by 17 points, and our fears were lifted.
Pittsburgh shut-down the Ravens the rest of the day and preserved a very-satisfying 27-10 victory.
If I had to rank Steelers playoff performances by sheer-satisfaction, their 27-10 thumping of the Ravens at Heinz Field on January 20th, 2002, would rank pretty high on my list.
These days, when I hear the Ravens' usual war-cries after yet another wild card road victory over some average team quarterbacked by Chad Pennington or Matt Cassel, I don't fear the prospects of the Ravens coming to Heinz Field for a playoff game.
I think back to that glorious 27-10 playoff victory nearly ten seasons ago. That was the day I learned to fear the Baltimore Ravens nevermore.