"There's guys on both sides that generally just don't like each other."
Ben Roethlisberger's quote from 2009 pretty much describes the mutual feelings that bond the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Since 1996, these two teams have squared off at least twice a year. Since 2000, many of the games had championship implications and were played with an intensity seldom seen in other NFL match-ups.
Between them, the Ravens and Steelers have appeared in seven AFC Championship games since 2000. They've won four AFC Championships and three Super Bowls. Three times these two teams have met in the playoffs, and on two occasions the winner of that match-up went on to play in the Super Bowl. Great players on both sides have built their legacy in these games. The cities of Pittsburgh and Baltimore now loathe each other's football teams with a deep-rooted passion that is seemingly infused into the players' bloodstreams.
Simply put, this is the best rivalry in the NFL.
The rivalry had all the trimmings of being a good one from its inception. Baltimore inherited their genes from the Cleveland Browns after Art Modell moved the team in 1996. The city of Baltimore, once the home of the Johnny Unitas-led championship Colts teams, has always been a passionate football town. And some of the old-time Baltimore fans surely remember Pittsburgh's 40-14 beat down of the Colts in the 1976 AFC playoffs.
Pittsburgh handed Baltimore their first loss in franchise history in a 31-17 win in Pittsburgh on September 8, 1996. Led by former Steelers running back Bam Morris, the Ravens returned the favor with a 31-17 win in Baltimore three months later. The seeds of this rivalry were beginning to grow.
After falling behind 21-0 in Baltimore in an early season match up in 1997, Kordell Stewart's five total touchdowns and 137 rushing yards by Jerome Bettis sparked Pittsburgh's 42-34 victory in a game that would come to define the Steelers' 1997 season. The rematch that year wasn't even close; Pittsburgh won 37-0 on Sunday Night Football in what is the largest margin of victory for either team in this series. But I remember the commentators that night talking about a young Ravens linebacker that showed leadership and heart even in sure defeat. His name was Ray Lewis.
Pittsburgh gave Baltimore another first the following year: The first loss in the history of M&T Bank Stadium following the Steelers' 20-13 win in Week 1 of the '98 season. It was the third of five-straight victories in the rivalry for the Steelers before the Ravens won their first-ever game in Pittsburgh in December of '99.
The Steelers and Ravens rivalry became personal in the 2000s. After Baltimore drubbed Pittsburgh 16-0 in Week 1 of the 2000 season, Pittsburgh exacted revenge on Baltimore by being the last team to defeat the Ravens on their way to a Super Bowl victory, with a 9-6 slug-fest victory in Baltimore in late October. What made the Ravens' Super Bowl victory even harder to stomach was that Rod Woodson, one of my favorite Steelers of all-time, won his only Super Bowl championship with the Ravens.
After giving the Steelers their first-ever defeat at Heinz Field earlier in 2001, Pittsburgh more than responded to Baltimore's challenge. Led by one of the finest games in Kordell Stewart's career, the Steelers won the last AFC Central Division title by defeating Baltimore 26-21 on December 16.
The teams met a month later for the first time in the NFL's post-season. The defending Super Bowl champions, in Pittsburgh, to face the team with the AFC's best record. It was no contest, as a swarming Steelers defense and a potent offensive attack slammed the door on the Ravens championship hopes in a 27-10 Pittsburgh victory.
Since that time, the rivalry has continued to evolve into a classic. Roethlisberger got his first professional playing time after replacing an injured Tommy Maddox in a game against the Ravens in Week 2 of the 2004 season. Needless to say, Ben and the Steelers haven't looked back. Roethlisberger has twice defeated the Ravens in the post-season in the teams' two other playoff match-ups. While Troy Polamalu sealed the Steelers 23-14 win over Baltimore with a pick-6 late in the 2008 AFC Championship, en route to the team's victory in Super Bowl XLIII, Big Ben engineered a gallant second-half comeback in Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional-round win over the Ravens in the 2010 playoffs. Dramatic wins at Baltimore in 2008 and 2010 helped ignite both of the Steelers' Super Bowl runs.
Even in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII championship season, the Steelers still found a way to antagonize their most hated foe. With Charlie Batch at the helm, Pittsburgh snapped Baltimore's 15-game home winning streak with a 23-20 win in early December. The teams split victories in their two meetings last season, with the Ravens' Thanksgiving night victory going down as one of the more epic and controversial games in the rivalry's history. The total margin of victory for the winning teams last season was five points and the last five games in this rivalry have been decided by three points or less.
Tonight, the two teams take the field sporting a different look. Some of the great defensive players in this rivalry are gone, and the teams' offenses are now centered around Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, as opposed to featuring punishing running games. But this is still the Ravens and Steelers, and if there's one thing I've learned watching this rivalry, it's that you'll see a physical, emotional slug-fest that always comes down to the final possession. That's just one reason why this is the best rivalry in the NFL, and tonight another chapter will be written.