A real rivalry game is a season unto itself. The result can either redeem or spoil all that preceded or followed that particular contest making or breaking a year. So when a rivalry game also doubles as a Conference Championship Game things really intensify, to say the least.
We're reliving some of the classic moments in the Steelers/Ravens rivalry as the two teams prepare to hit each other head on again in Week 11. Weigh in on your own favorite games and memories in the comments, and on our Facebook page. - nc
Normally, losing a championship game would be like having your spouse or significant other dump you. But when that loss is to your most hated rival, its like being dumped and that person running off with your worst enemy in life, emptying out your bank account and taking the dog. Of course, on the other hand, if you win...
This is what Steeler Nation faced on the occasion of the 2008 AFCCG. Expectations had been low that year. The Steelers had made a disappointing exit in the first round of the playoffs to Jacksonville in Mike Tomlin's first season at the helm in '07. Much was made of the team's killer schedule for 2008, they struggled with injuries (what else is new) and a shaky start to the season. Nonetheless, when the dust settled Pittsburgh had done well enough to win the division, and then buried the San Diego Chargers in the Divisional round of the playoffs. They were one step away from their seventh appearance in the Super Bowl. All they had to do was to win the Conference Championship Game at home. But their opponent would be the Baltimore Ravens. And this time they would not be playing just for bragging rights or divisional supremacy, much more would be at stake. The Steelers had swept the season series but each game was closely contested and decided in the final moments. There was reason for both confidence and fear.
In terms of the physical intensity and venom that normally characterizes Steelers v. Ravens matchups, this game did not disappoint. Players from both sides were forced to retreat to the sidelines, locker rooms and local hospitals from the opening kickoff on. The two offenses aspired to nothing greater than to just reach double digits in scoring. While the stakes could not be any higher for two teams that resided in the same conference, you were left with the impression as they struggled in the cold and the dark that it would be no different if they were fighting in an alley with no spectators at all, rather than in front of millions. The greatest joy for each would be to simply throttle the other. The Hunt Trophy would be icing on the cake.
There were a lot of big moments as the tension built with every play.
Hines Ward was hated and feared by Ravens defensive backs as a grinning thug. He could be counted on for making big catches and when he wasn't doing that he might knocking defenders out the game with crushing blocks. So it was disappointing when Ward was himself knocked out of the game.
Santonio Holmes stepped into the gap. Holmes had a huge defining play in each game of the Steelers' playoff run in '08. In this game he caught a pass from near the Steelers sideline and fled across the field to the opposite sideline and into the endzone for a score that would electrify the crowd and give Pittsburgh a lead that they would never relinquish.
Troy Polamalu made one of those signature efforts that only Troy does when in a short yardage situation he leaps over the Baltimore offensive line tackling quarterback Joe Flacco for a loss, and ending a Ravens drive.
Limas Sweed's journey out of league began in earnest when he dropped a certain touchdown pass and then compounded the problem by faking an injury to hide his embarrassment /shame. Fortunately for Sweed the Steelers won the game. If they had lost it is likely that he might have gone down and as one of the most vilified and hated players in team history. As it turned out he redeemed himself partially by delivering a crushing, Hines like block that knocked a Ravens defender out of the game later on.
For all of these heroics the Ravens had the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to win the game and rip the heart out of Steeler Nation. Troy then intercepts a Flacco pass. God could have taken most Steelers fans right then because it was unlikely that anything was going to top that moment. But then Troy did by zigzagging through the Ravens offense and racing into the endzone insuring a trip to the Super Bowl and breaking the hearts of the Ravens and their fans at precisely the same moment. Its hard for things to get any better than that. But it did.
Safety Ryan Clark put an exclamation point on the proceedings when he knocked Ravens running back Willis McGahee into the hospital on a hit after a pass reception. The shot was so vicious that both teams were on the field praying for McGahee's immortal soul as they carted him off (Willis would be fine). That final act of extreme violence helped to place Steelers/Ravens in legendary territory in league lore.