What makes Ravens-Steelers so compelling? A history lesson before rivalry renews

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The MMQB’s Andy Benoit takes a look at this weekend’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Time_Sports

The NFL’s fiercest rivalry resumes on, of all days, Christmas.

No, Steelers-Ravens never went anywhere, but the AFC North border war had lost a bit of its luster in recent years, thanks to the retirement of some marquee names from both teams (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward), injuries suffered by both starting quarterbacks in recent years and the hostilities the Steelers have recently developed with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens have also won the last four games (and six of seven) against Pittsburgh.

But it could be back with a vengeance given the AFC North title is at stake Sunday afternoon.

The Steelers (9-5) can clinch the division with a win. But Baltimore (8-6), which won the first meeting between the teams in November, will take control of the AFC North with a win because it will have the season sweep as a decisive tiebreaker heading into Week 17.

So as we prepare for what should be another memorable game in a series filled with them, let’s look back at what has made this rivalry so great.

The stars: Some of the greatest defensive players in recent generations have defined this matchup, from Lewis, Reed and Terrell Suggs with the Ravens to James Harrison, Casey Hampton and Polamalu for the Steelers. Most of those defensive stars have since retired, and the newest gamebreakers in this series are on offense. For Pittsburgh, it’s the dynamic trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. For Baltimore, it’s quarterback Joe Flacco and receiver Steve Smith, who is rather new to this rivalry after spending most of his career in Carolina. Yet it feels like Smith, one of the best trash-talkers in league history, was built specifically to play against Pittsburgh. A new twist for 2016 is Ravens receiver Mike Wallace, who started his career with the Steelers.

The hits: If you like finesse football, this isn’t the game for you. Ravens-Steelers has always been about toughness, with big hitters on each roster who seem to save their most ferocious blows for these meetings. Roethlisberger has been on the receiving end of some of the fiercest — from the brutal hit Bart Scott laid on him in 2009 (Scott was uncovered on a blitz) to the time Big Ben suffered a broken nose after a lick from Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in 2010. But the Steelers have delivered plenty of their own memorable blows as well. Like a leaping Harrison leveling Reed on a punt return in 2007, or anytime receiver Ward laid a crack-back block on Lewis.

The stakes: So many games in this series have mattered as much or more than Sunday’s will. The Steelers lead the series 24-21, and have a 3-1 advantage in postseason games. That includes the 2008 AFC Championship Game, which followed Flacco’s rookie season but turned out to be a stepping stone for the Steelers’ sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens finally got their first postseason win of the rivalry during a wild-card game following the 2014 season, avenging an earlier loss that season in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes.

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Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones

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