Most of the characteristics that have defined what many consider the best rivalry in football remain unchanged. Make no mistake, the
The disdain is well-earned from years of hard hits, tough talk and frantic finishes, from two teams with similar mentalities clashing at least twice a year with the realization that the winner will have the inside track on the division title.
When the Ravens and Steelers meet again Sunday night at Heinz Field, the stakes will be high, as they seemingly always are. But some of the faces of the rivalry, from
Heading into a potentially season-defining stretch in which they'll play their archrival twice in a three-week span, the Ravens are 7-2, one game better than the Steelers (6-3). The Ravens have the second-best record in the
The Steelers have relied on the NFL's top-ranked defense, which hasn't been flashy but has given up very little ground, and the play of Roethlisberger. But that formula may have to change after the quarterback, who has long tormented the Ravens, hurt his throwing shoulder and ribs last week and could be out for an extended period. Veteran journeyman
"It's going to have a little bit of a different feel," said Ravens outside linebacker
Suggs, the loquacious linebacker who has embraced his role as a villain in the eyes of Steelers' fans, was mostly mum this week, declining to add to the back-and-forth rhetoric between the teams that has been every bit a part of this rivalry as punishing hits.
In fact, there was far more talk in the week leading up to the game about who wasn't going to play than who was, and that shouldn't be the case, says former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who will do color commentary for the
"Fans would probably make the worst [general managers] in the league because by the time they learn somebody's name on defense, that guy is probably already past his prime. I hate to say it, but that's the reality. There is a new generation of really good players coming through in this rivalry," said Collinsworth, specifically mentioning Steelers linebacker
Still, the attention has been on the fact that Roethlisberger and Polamalu, a safety who has made many momentum-shifting plays in the rivalry, are both sidelined with injuries, as is the Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver, Antonio Brown.
Ward, the gritty wide receiver who took great joy in punishing the Ravens with clutch catches and thunderous blocks, has retired. Ray Lewis, the Ravens' long-time defensive leader, remains out after having surgery to repair a torn triceps.
The defense Lewis left behind bears very little resemblance to the intimidating group that was long considered one of the NFL's best.
"You look at it and year-in and year-out, Pittsburgh and Baltimore always had a chance because of the defense that kept them in it," Ward said. "I think the transition from the older players to the younger guys has went better with Pittsburgh than Baltimore. For so many years, you were seeing Ray Lewis and
However, Ward, who relished the physical battles with his former
It was Smith who caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Flacco in the game's final seconds last year at Heinz Field to help the Ravens complete a season sweep of Pittsburgh en route to the division title.
"Flacco and Ray Rice, that's what it's all about. Those guys are explosive players," Ward said. "If you can't go out there and win it on defense, then you have to turn it over to your offense. For Baltimore, that's kind of what they've done. It comes full circle, the evolution of the game, the players that you have and no longer have. They've just evolved into more of an offensive team and they've become balanced on offense. I think Pittsburgh is trying to do the same."
Ward certainly remembers the days where the Ravens asked their quarterback to manage games and rode a dominant defense and physical running back Jamal Lewis to the playoffs. This season, he has watched Flacco getting more and more responsibility to make decisions at the line of scrimmage.
The fifth-year quarterback is on pace to throw a career-high 549 passes while Rice, the two-time
"People make a mistake to think of a team that's a non-heavy run team as not a physical team," said Billick who won a
Roethlisberger, who inherited the lead of the Steelers' offense while Bettis was winding down his career and has two Super Bowl titles on his resume, was having arguably the best season of his career when he was slammed down to the grass last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
With him, the Steelers hadn't strayed too far from their roots, featuring a power running game, complimented by Roethlisberger's improvisational skills and downfield weapons
"There's not an identity crisis here," Cowher said. "Both these teams, they know who they are, and really the bottom line for both these organizations, it's about getting a chance to go to the Super Bowl."
Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.