PITTSBURGH — Looks like another winter classic in Pittsburgh.
Some NFL rivalries are manufactured. Some ebb and flow depending on the teams' records. Then there's Ravens vs. Steelers, one that is as real as it gets. The games usually are meaningful, with an intensity that isn't faked and a physicality that caused Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward to label it the Black and Blue Bowl.
The eighth meeting in three seasons between AFC North rivals will leave the winner one victory short of the Super Bowl. The survivor of Saturday's AFC divisional game meets the winner of Sunday's Jets-Patriots game in the AFC championship game on Jan. 23.
Yes, another big Ravens-Steelers game, only a month and 10 days since the last. Yet many in Baltimore and Pittsburgh couldn't wait for it.
"Both sides know when the whistle blows, you're going to get what we got and we're going to get what they got," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, whose renowned nastiness fits perfectly in this rivalry. "So, once again — I love to use this — here we go again."
The Ravens and Steelers tied with 12-4 regular-season records, but Pittsburgh earned a first-round bye based on its superior division record — one made possible by its improbable 13-10 win in Baltimore on Dec. 5. The Ravens were within a couple of first downs of securing a 10-6 win, but Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu caused a Joe Flacco fumble that led to Ben Roethlisberger's winning 9-yard touchdown pass with 2:51 remaining.
Just like that, a season flipped. But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin cautions the Ravens are capable of "flipping the script" in a series that's so close, each of the last four games was decided by three points. The combined score since 2003 is Ravens 302, Steelers 302.
Still, the Ravens are 0-2 in the postseason in Heinz Field, where new sod was put down amid a series of snowy days that followed the NHL's Winter Classic between the Capitals and Penguins on Jan. 1. That was hockey in the rain. This will be football with snow flurries, temperatures in the 20s and emotions that will be super heated.
Former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter proved that when he tried to climb aboard the Ravens' bus and fight Lewis in 2003. So did Plaxico Burress and James Trapp when they fought on the field in 2002. So did the Ravens, who stood mocking an oft-sacked Ben Roethlisberger in 2006. Perhaps that wasn't a good idea; Roethlisberger is 6-0 against them since then.
The numerous injuries illustrate the physical nature of the rivalry. Porter's dangerous hit on an unprotected Todd Heap in 2004 still infuriates the Ravens. Lewis ended running back Rashard Mendenhall's rookie season by breaking his shoulder in 2008. Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain's helmet hit on Heath Miller last month caused a concussion and led to a $40,000 fine. In the same game, Haloti Ngata smacked Roethlisberger in the face, breaking the quarterback's nose with a hit that cost him a $15,000 fine.
"We're similar styles, we're physical and we try to impose our will on each other," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "I think both teams try to see themselves as bullies."
For the Ravens, perhaps there's a tinge of envy that the Steelers always seem to gain the upper hand when it matters; they are 2-8 against Roethlisberger. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two touchdown passes in a 30-7 wild-card dismantling of Kansas City last weekend, is 0-5 when he starts against Roethlisberger.
While Baltimore is 7-3 in road playoff games, Pittsburgh is 8-0 — zero losses in 40 years — when it meets a division rival in the postseason.
"Some stats you keep up with, some you don't care about," Lewis said. "We can't pack a bag with 40 years on it and say, 'Hey guys, look what we haven't done in 40 years.' Forget it."
The Ravens rebounded from last month's loss to win their last five, with Heap — who missed nearly all the Dec. 5 game with a hamstring injury — making 10 catches against Kansas City. Ray Rice was held to 52 yards in the two regular-season games, but is the only opposing back in 50 games to run for more than 100 yards against the Steelers' league-leading rushing defense.
There's much to worry the Ravens, too, as the Steelers have won six of seven.Comment on this story
Polamalu, bothered for weeks by a sore right Achilles' tendon, is the healthiest he's been since midseason. Roethlisberger, under constant pressure last month from linebacker Terrell Suggs, often uses his size and strength to extend plays that appear to have broken down. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, who will be playing in his first postseason game, has seven catches of 40-plus yards and possesses the kind of speed the Ravens haven't seen elsewhere.
"He hit a gear that I didn't even know existed in a human being on a little pop pass Ben threw to him (against Carolina)," Suggs said. "I was like, 'Wow, that's just amazing.'"
There's often a 'wow' factor in Ravens-Steelers games. Ward knows he doesn't want to experience the opposite feeling, especially given that, due to the NFL's unstable labor situation, the loser won't know for sure when it will play again.
"We know what's at stake, and whoever wins this game will have to think about that loss all offseason," Ward said. "It's going to be physical. And it usually comes down to the fourth quarter."