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Sports Authority

Ravens-Steelers is sports’ top rivalry

| Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This is the fourth in a 10-part series discussing the best rivalry in sports. In this installment, Aaron Sant-Miller argues for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Join the discussion on Twitter by using the #BestRivalry.

“The players hate each other, the coaches hate each other …  There’s no calling each other after the game and inviting each other out to dinner, but the feeling is mutual. They don’t like us and we don’t like them.” — Hines Ward, retired Steelers receiver

Clearly, the Jackie Moon philosophy of “Everybody love everybody” has not yet found a home on the gridiron in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, in what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin terms the best rivalry in football.

Since Thanksgiving of 2007, the Ravens and the Steelers have played each other 15 times. In every game but one, the game was decided by only one score. More impressively still, 11 of the last 15 times these teams have gone toe-to-toe, the winner has won by four points or less.

Some people may reject the notion that this is the best rivalry in sports. Some may even reject the idea that this is the best rivalry in the NFL. Though the NFL structure encourages rivalries, the salary cap, injuries, the draft, compensatory picks and the violent nature of the game do their best to ensure a league of equal opportunity. All it takes is one off-season for a team to go from 12-4 to 2-14 (see Texans, Houston).

Sure, neither the Ravens nor the Steelers made the playoffs this season. Some may consequently challenge the importance of these games. Some may challenge this rivalry’s relevancy. Fair enough. Fair enough.

Here is what I will say to that. Over the last 10 years, these two teams are a combined 200-110. Since the last conference realignment in 2002, one of these two teams has won the AFC North all but three times. At least one of these two teams has competed in four of the last six AFC Championships. One of the two teams has also been in three of the last six Super Bowls, and twice the Ravens or the Steelers have brought home the Lombardi Trophy over the last six seasons. Mind you, this is in a professional sports league based on communist-like values. You can’t argue the relevancy of these teams right now.

So the table is set. Two teams have an impressive resume in recent history and consistently play uniquely close games.

Intrigued? Guess what? I haven’t even touched on the rivalry itself yet.

These are two teams built around hard-hitting defense, two teams that pride themselves on a physical identity. When these teams play each other, it’s like watching a game from ten to fifteen years ago, before the NFL took to the air and flags were thrown every other series for “targeting.”

When the Ravens and the Steelers play, there will be injuries. There will be big hits, both legal and illegal. There will be shoving after almost every whistle and there will be incessant trash talk that even the most innocent fan will wish he or she could hear from the couch.

These are two of the most physical sports teams in the nation and they have the reputation to match what is seen on Sundays. When they meet, it is a clash of dreadnaughts, bringing some semblance of accuracy to every war metaphor applied to the game of football.

This past Thanksgiving, that brutality was on display. When the game ended, the Steelers had lost their starting running back, a top defensive lineman and four offensive linemen to injuries, while the Ravens lost two of their top corners, a top receiver and a starting outside linebacker. Just another Ravens-Steelers matchup, as this has become the standard for these two teams.

This rivalry doesn’t have catchy names for critical game-deciding plays. Would you expect anything else from these two teams? These are two teams that pride themselves in a hardhat mentality, a working-class identity, just getting the job done.

Still, you had the infamous attempt by Mike Tomlin to “interfere” with Ravens returner Jacoby Jones, you have Charlie Batch’s game winning drive in 2012, Flacco’s 92-yard drive and 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left in 2011 (this is after he had dropped the wide-open go-ahead score two plays previously) and Polamalu’s strip sack of Flacco with less  than four minutes remaining and the Steelers down four in 2010.

This rivalry has the essential elements of all good rivalries. Close games. Relevant teams with a history of excellence. Memorable moments. An intensity that, in football, brings a unique physicality and scrappiness. Oh, and the teams hate each other. That’s fun too.

Name two other teams who regularly put on a better performance and provide consistently exciting and close games. Don’t worry, I can wait.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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