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Old 01-15-2011, 01:19 AM   #1
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Default Steelers-Ravens rivalry borne of hatred, respect

Steelers-Ravens rivalry borne of hatred, respect
By Bob Cohn
Saturday, January 15, 2011

After the Houston Texans' birth as an NFL expansion team in 2000, then-Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell said he wouldn't mind switching from the AFC to the NFC, if the league deemed it necessary.

"We have no solid, entrenched rivalries of traditional teams we play," Modell said. "I don't mind moving because we can start new relationships."

Fortunately for fans, the league and orthopedic surgeons, the team stayed put. Imagine, after all, if the Ravens played in one conference and the Steelers another, if during the past decade the franchises had not forged what is considered to be the NFL's most intense, competitive and bone-crunching rivalry.

There would be no feisty trash talk and inflammatory accusations twice, sometimes three times, yearly. No legalized violence of the type likely to test new NFL rules when the teams meet yet again at 4:30 p.m. today at Heinz Field in an AFC divisional playoff game.

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs would not be sporting a T-shirt showing a dirty bird flashing a well-known, single-digit gesture under the words, "Hey, Pittsburgh," as he did this week while talking about what he calls "the best rivalry in sports." There would be no cause for Baltimore coach John Harbaugh to exasperatedly explain he truly did not delight in the breaking of Ben Roethlisberger's nose the last time the teams met.

Without the clubs as bitter rivals and almost yearly AFC North contenders, the Steelers' Joey Porter never would have attacked Ray Lewis as Lewis (ital) boarded the team bus (ital) after a 2003 game in which Porter did not even play because he was recovering from a gunshot wound to his butt.

No one would have put a bounty on Hines Ward in '08, and Bart Scott would never have threatened to "kill" Ward during an '07 game.

Porter would be elsewhere rather than cheap-shotting an already wobbling Ravens tight end Todd Heap in '04. Baltimore's James Trapp kicking receiver Plaxico Burress in the stomach after ripping off his helmet in '02? Forget it.

Also, the h-word hate would not be tossed around like so many penalty flags.

Before and after these slugfests, fans spray talk shows and the Internet with a high-potency brand of the stuff, and players incessantly are grilled on their level of animosity for their opponents. This week's answers varied, as they always do. Some, like Lewis, the Ravens' decorated middle linebacker, took the coy approach.

"I like pizza, I like a lot of things," he said the other day with a smile. "There's a lot of things I don't like. And it's OK to use that word, 'like.' It's always good when you don't get the other word."

This from a player who snapped Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder two years ago, ending the rookie running back's season.

Ward, the Steelers' veteran receiver who infuriates opponents (like Scott, then a Ravens linebacker) with his zealous blocking, broaches the subject more directly. Almost every year, it seems, the words "pure hatred" spill from his ever-present, killer's smile.

Linebacker James Farrior, a Steeler since '02, said he hates every opponent on game day. "But this team I especially hate," he said. "And it's no secret they hate us just about the same. That's just a normal word when you talk about the Ravens."

In denial

When the magic word was mentioned, veteran Ravens receiver Derrick Mason laughed.

"I don't hate Pittsburgh," he said. "They haven't done anything to me. They haven't done anything to my parents or my kids."

Steelers safety Ryan Clark denied being a hater and said he prefers to let Ravens like Suggs do the talking. "Let (ital) them (ital) build up the rivalry," said Clark, who leveled Ravens running back Willis McGahee with a now-illegal helmet-to-helmet hit two years ago.

Troy Polamalu, whose well-chronicled spirituality embraces the teachings of a Greek Orthodox monk, is a ferocious hitter. But he has no room in his heart for hatred. Instead, he defines the rivalry as a more of a "chess match" focused on field position and limiting turnovers, of avoiding the mistake that could determine the outcome.

"In that way it's the truest essence of what football is about," said Polamalu, who is linked with Baltimore's Ed Reed as the best safeties of their time.

No one denies that these games are special. Even Polamalu said the tone of a preseason game with the Ravens would likely be that of a game that counts.

"The last few times we've played them it always comes down to close games, and when you're in games like that, it's very emotional," said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton, completing his 10th season with the Steelers. "You learn to start disliking a team even more."

Making of a rivalry

The Steelers have had other rivals, notably the Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers in the 1970s. But neither rivalry lasted nearly as long as this one.

With just 200 miles separating cities that share the same division and personas ("blue-collar" the most commonly used description), the rivalry accelerated after 2000, when Baltimore won its one and only Super Bowl during a 26-year championship drought for the Steelers. Before the teams met in September 2003, Lewis said, "For some reason we're beginning to like playing Pittsburgh because of the rivalry we had."

The teams established control of the division and developed similar identities built upon punishing, turnover-producing defenses. Leading them were glib, outspoken coaches, the Ravens' Brian Billick and the Steelers' Bill Cowher, who seemed to genuinely dislike each other and barely tried to hide it. Both now are TV analysts, but the mutual animosity they bred lives on.

The Steelers have been the better team since 2001, winning two Super Bowls to none for the Ravens, and leading the series, 13-9, including 2-0 in the postseason. Aside from an occasional blowout, most games have been close; five of the past six were decided by three points, the other by four.

To a larger extent, respect, not hatred, seems to fuel the rivalry. Ward, who memorably blasted Reed in '07, introduced the Ravens safety on video as a member of the 100 best NFL players of all time. Clark said he would "hate to wear that purple, but my personality could play for Baltimore."

During his 14-year NFL career, quarterback Trent Dilfer played for the Ravens one season 2000, the year he earned a Super Bowl ring, the start of something special.

"(The rivalry) has every element of what you're looking for in football," said Dilfer, an ESPN analyst. "Coaching, quarterbacking, physical defense, marquee names, drama. It has every element of what makes the NFL great."

Bob Cohn can be reached at rcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.
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