Why this is on the list:
Because unlike every other sport on this list (besides boxing), the hate is actually tangible when you watch these teams play. A hard foul in basketball, and a brush back pitch in baseball can send messages, but a safety coming free off the blind side can actually deliver one. In all of the other sports on this list, it is borderline illegal to hit your opponent, and an ejectable offense if you do so with forethought or malice. In Steelers-Ravens games, if players don’t have those intentions, they probably have a great seat on the bench.
For the past 10 years, these two teams have produced the most heated, brutal football games in the entire NFL. Players are injured in these games, bones are broken and blood usually boils to the surface of at least a face or two. There have been three playoff games, two of which have produced unforgettable moments to any football fan (Polamalu’s back breaking interception TD of Flacco, and Ben’s bomb to Antonio “nail in the coffin” Brown).
In a league where parity rules some divisions (NFC South, NFC East), these two teams have been almost immune to subpar seasons (4 sub .500 seasons combined since 2001), and almost exclusively play close games (15 of 23 games decided by 10 points or less). Since the AFC North formed in 2002, one of the teams has won the division 7 out of 9 years.
Although the Ravens last championship was just prior to the 10-year window this list includes, they have been able to play a more than effective foil to Pittsburgh, especially in the Charm City (the Ravens are 6-4 at M&T Bank). Ravens fans hate Hines Ward’s ever-present, shit-eating “who-me?” grin, and the trail of sleaze left by Ben Roethlisberger every time he rolls out of the pocket or into a nightclub.
Steelers fans hate that none of their all-time legendary linebackers have been better than the madman in the middle of the Baltimore defense for the past 15 years. And Ray Lewis makes sure to let them know that with his mouth, and in Rashard Mendenhall’s case, his shoulder. They hate that the one game that separated them from a flawless 2004 season, was a week 2 blowout loss to a Ravens team helmed by the immortal Kyle Boller.
Even casual football fans can get roped into arguments about which team has been superior in different facets of the game. At safety, do you prefer the chaotic, instinctive, thunderous hitting style of Troy Polamalu, or the studied, sticky handed, game breaking return ability of Ed Reed? Which city has seen more talent pass through it at linebacker? Which one year linebacker group was the most dominant, the post-SB 2001 Ravens (Boulware-Lewis-Sharper) or the 2008 champion Steelers (Woodley-Farrior-Foote-Harrison)?
When Hines Ward gets pulled over for a DUI, and Ray Rice makes a comment about it, the media spins it as a shot across the bow from one team to another. Never mind that Rice’s cousin was killed in a drunk driving accident, it’s Ravens vs. Steelers. However incorrect that may be, it certainly gives an accurate reading of the temperature of this rivalry.
Why this isn’t higher:
Normally there are a lot of separate factors here, but what it really comes down to is the playoff game last year. If the Ravens had been able to turn the lights out on Heinz Field for the 2011 season, this rivalry would have been much higher.
Baltimore would have had a playoff win over their most hated enemies to hang their hat on, and home field advantage in the AFC Championship game against a team they had already defeated on the road (the Jets). All things considered, I don’t think it’s an outlandish statement to say that the Ravens had enough talent to possibly go all the way last year.
After masterfully outperforming an apparently woefully undermatched Steelers team on offense and defense for the first 30 minutes, the Ravens went into the locker room with a 21-7 lead, and one leg already in the AFC Championship game.
The second half was a waking nightmare for Baltimore fans. Turnover after turnover piled up, the Steelers defense played up to its Super Bowl caliber billing, and Joe Flacco failed to reach the other side of the chasm while trying to make “the leap”. The cyanide pill cherry on top was the beautiful arcing deep ball that Roethlisberger threw down the sideline over a bewildered Baltimore secondary to Antonio Brown to set Pittsburgh up for the eventual game-clinching touchdown on the way to a 34-21 victory.
Not only did that throw all but erase the argument that Roethlisberger rides the coat tails of the Pittsburgh defense (there are 32 QB’s in the NFL, and I think Roethlisberger is one of three that could have made that throw in those circumstances), but it also made a compelling numbers case that the Steelers dominate this rivalry way more than the initial numbers indicate.
With the win, Pittsburgh moved to 3-0 against Baltimore in the playoffs. John Harbaugh, the Ravens rightfully highly regarded head coach (32-16 in three years), saw another game against Pittsburgh slip through the cracks. He’s now been on the short end of a Mike Tomlin handshake six times.
And the two times that the Ravens have beaten the Steelers in his tenure, the victories have been mitigated by the notable absence of Pittsburgh’s star quarterback (Roethlisberger is 6-0 against Harbaugh). Just like Lloyd Carr at Michigan, regardless of all of his success, it’s Harbaugh’s 2-6 record against Pittsburgh (and his counterpart Mike Tomlin’s 7-3 record against Baltimore) that has begun to raise questions among Baltimore fans about whether Harbaugh is a coach capable of returning the Lombardi Trophy to Maryland.
If the Ravens can get to the big game, or at least prevent the Steelers from getting there, it would mark a huge shift in momentum in the Steelers vs. Ravens rivalry. Until then, Baltimore had had their moments, but when it has counted, black and yellow has come out on top.