Nasty rivalry to decide AFC

January 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Raiders-Steelers rivalry was so filled with enmity and emotion, hatred and hostility during the 1970s that a football field couldn't hold it.

About all that's missing from the NFL's newest and nastiest rivalry, the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a player suing the opposing coach in federal court for labeling him part of football's criminal element, as Oakland's George Atkinson once did former Steelers coach Chuck Noll.

That the two relatively close-by teams are playing Sunday for the AFC championship, barely a month since they last met, is only ratcheting up the hard feelings. So far, the talk has been respectful between teams that are eerily alike in personality and performance but, at least in Pittsburgh, the expectations are the bad mouthing has only begun.

Wait until Sunday night, and the back-and-forth exchanges between the Ravens and Steelers will be real, will be ugly and won't be suitable for showing on Nickelodeon.


"I knew this was a big rivalry when I came into the league (in 2001) and I remember Ray Lewis and Jerome Bettis really getting after it, talking trash, hitting each other," Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. "It was unbelievable, some of the talking and some of the hits. They'd hit each other, then they'd talk to each other."

Neither the talking nor the hitting has stopped. In the last few years:

* The Ravens' Bart Scott, so angry with big hits that Hines Ward put on him and safety Ed Reed, threatened to kill Ward the next time they played.

"I'm still here," said Ward, who epitomizes the physical way these teams play -- a wide receiver not afraid to take on some of the league's biggest hitters.

* Terrell Suggs bragged the Ravens put bounties on Ward and rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall during Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field on Sept. 29, when Lewis' hard hit gave Mendenhall a season-ending shoulder injury. Mendenhall angered the Ravens by saying beforehand he anticipated having a big game.

The NFL investigated but apparently took no action, and it is uncertain if Suggs' bounty talk was braggadocio or fact. But Mendenhall has been seen only irregularly at the Steelers' practice complex since.

"You feel a lot worse on Monday after a (Ravens-Steelers) game," Ravens safety Jim Leonhard said. "It's a physical game. It's everything you think it would be."

* Ward has been called the most hated man in Baltimore because of how he hits, then smiles about it.

"They don't like it that I'm happy all the time," Ward said. "If the city of Baltimore is mad at me for doing that, I'm sorry to the city of Baltimore."

There's no love for Lewis or safety Ed Reed in Pittsburgh either, though, Reed said, "Man, I think we're bad guys, regardless (not just in Pittsburgh)."

* Here's how much the Ravens are disliked in Pittsburgh: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl (note the first six letters in his last name) changed the name on his office door this week to Steelerstahl.

n Mitch Berger -- the punter! -- alleged the Ravens' Frank Walker spit on him during a last-minute 13-9 win in Baltimore on Dec. 14 that clinched the AFC North title for Pittsburgh. Walker said it was, ahem, unintentional.

Talk about two teams that are spitting images of each other.

* Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel finds it impossible to root for the Ravens under any circumstances. He wanted Tennessee to win last weekend's divisional game, despite the fact a Baltimore victory means the AFC championship game will be played in Pittsburgh, not Nashville.

"There's a lot of extracurricular stuff that goes on in these games," Keisel said. "It's just two teams that play basically the same way: physical football, in-your-face football."

Ward said the defenses are so good, with Pittsburgh No. 1 in the league and Baltimore No. 2, that it is the only game the Steelers play all season in which only a single touchdown is expected.

* Before leaving for the Giants, former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress had his head stomped on by Baltimore's James Trapp during a midfield altercation, and Shannon Sharpe ridiculed Burress by calling him "Plexiglas."

This is the fifth-Ravens Steelers game in 15 months, and familiarly breeds contempt between teams that have combined to win six of the last seven AFC North titles.

"It never gets old," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. "I'd play them every other week if they let us. These are games you play all season for. I think it's probably going to be the highest intensity level we've seen to this point this year."

For the first time since the Steelers eliminated the reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens in a divisional game in January 2002, one team's season is guaranteed of ending in a Baltimore-Pittsburgh game. The Steelers haven't played a divisional rival for the AFC title since defeating the Houston Oilers (now the Titans) during the 1978 and '79 seasons.

"It's not like we're going to go outside the stadium and fight each other," Ward said. "But it's genuine hate when we go out and play each other. There's no helping each other up, there's going to be a lot of talking."

It wouldn't be Ravens vs. Steelers if there wasn't.

"That's what's nice about this game," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said, invoking a word not commonly used to describe Ravens-Steelers matchups. "You can never lose focus on the Super Bowl when it's such a big rivalry."

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