Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Ravens vs. Steelers, 2002

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Pittsburgh's Forgotten Classics: Ravens vs. Steelers, 2002
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The rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens is one of the most vicious in NFL history—each contest serving like a seeming bloodbath as much as a battle. 

What is Steelers vs. Ravens?  Simply, it's a lesson in ___________.  Many words could fill in the blank.

Passion...

Smashmouth...

Grittiness...

Defense...

Hundred-yard rushers and West Coast precision: that usually isn't Steelers-Ravens. If you're a real fan of "real" football (and these fans know exactly what that means), you have a stake claimed in each contest—all of them a chapter in the clear precedent set for modern ballgame battery. Steelers-Ravens is as much your mother's football game as a Cadillac is your janitor's mode of transportation.

Yet, it surely didn't start that way.

Initially, after Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, the rivalry—which was now completely resurfaced unrecognizably—didn't quite have its spark. 

Sure, coach Ted Marchibroda's Ravens would inflict a surprising loss or two on the Steelers in those first couple of years, but Cowher's Steelers kept winning, while the displaced former Browns kept losing.  The Ravens were 16-31-1 under Marchibroda.

Which season in which the Ravens-Steelers met three times featured the best games?

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Without the battle cries of success from the other side, albeit now or throughout a history that still existed, Baltimore seemed like just another obstacle to jump over...and one dressed in purple at that!  The modern day "Purple People Eaters" they were not.

Then, things started to change, and the teams' fortunes took drastically different paths.

The Steelers started to lose alongside the Ravens, finishing both 1998 and 1999 with losing records, snapping a six-year playoff-qualifying streak to begin Bill Cowher's head coaching career.

Conversely, the '99 Ravens were taken over by a cocky and absurdly egotistical head coach named Brian Billick. Clearly, the team responded, rebounding from a 4-7 start to finish 8-8. Included in a four-game winning streak was a victory at Pittsburgh, 31-24, which featured Qadry Ismail touchdown catches of 54, 59 and 76 yards.

A year later, an 0-3 start gave Steelers fans the clear expectation for another disappointing campaign.  For the Ravens, a promising finish translated to sheer optimism.

Their 2000 campaign began with a 16-0 win at Three Rivers Stadium—a site that narrowly missed ever hosting the two teams in the midst of their pronounced rivalry. 

If that wasn't enough to draw ire from the Steelers Country, tight end Shannon Sharpe's comment after the game surely sent all those bleeding Black and Gold over the edge. Sharpe spoke to the Steelers' internal turmoil, citing their team as looking the worst it ever had during his own personal career.

It began the war of words that would culminate over a two-year period and catapult the series into a full-fledged rivalry. The ill-will would build quickly between the squads as the heated glare from either side was enough to put the letters of c-h-a-r into arch-rivals. Steelers fans were getting to know the fiery ire that burns bird feathers!

Trent Dilfer took over at quarterback nearing midseason for an offense that went five straight games without scoring a touchdown. During this anemic stretch, the Steelers answered their opening game loss with a 9-6 win over the Ravens in Baltimore (Dilfer's first start of the season), prompting Cowher to feed a message through the media to Sharpe that the Steelers were doing just fine.

While the turn of the century saw Pittsburgh put the building blocks into place for a quick ascension back into contention, it was truly a full-fledged new millennium for the Ravens.

After the roster went years in Cleveland without being able to get over the hump, Baltimore's fifth season in Maryland brought fans in Ripken-ville a coveted Lombardi Trophy. By the shores of Lake Erie, history was playing cruel tricks.

The mouthy Ravens had won it all, giving them ample bragging rights headed into 2001. Despite featuring an offense that couldn't get into gear whatsoever for nearly a half-season, the historically dominant defense anchored the team to a 34-7 Super Bowl XXXV white-washing of the outclassed New York Giants, who were done in by a hopeless performance by Kerry Collins.

The 2001 team returned as a who's who catalog of defensive prowess: Ray Lewis, Adalius Thomas, Tony Sigagusa, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, Chris McAlister, Rod Woodson.

On offense, the unit only had to be average to make Baltimore a formidable squad once again—a feat that seemed very realistic despite the controversial decision not to return Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer. Instead, Brian Billick, an offensive-minded coach who coordinated the acclaimed '98 Vikings, felt he saw more potential in former Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Elvis Grbac.

So, on a team of rock-star personalities, an "Elvis" would join the mix. It was fitting.

On their first trip to the Steel City, the Ravens would be shook and rattled, but they were not rolled.

Nearing midseason, the 5-1 Steelers hosted the 4-3 defending champions. Not only could Pittsburgh take a stranglehold on the division, but they could deflate Baltimore's ego by sending them home with a .500 record.

Undefeated at newly christened Heinz Field, the Black and Gold played like a home team that wouldn't lose. They annihilated the Ravens statistically, outgaining them handsomely in first downs, yardage and time of possession.

Unfortunately, four Kris Brown field goals went wide right, and the result was widely wrong.  Nonetheless, the Ravens saw the final score of 13-10 and left with a swagger that every objective fan understood was unwarranted. At the end of the day, though, it didn't matter. Pittsburgh had lost.

That smarmy and narcissistic Brian Billick (per the perceptions of many in the 'Burgh) was 3-0 in Pittsburgh. The fourth Brown miss, an attempt to tie the game in the final seconds, was like a punch to the gut.

Pittsburgh had dominated, but Baltimore had won. The war of words was about to be waged.

Shannon Sharpe would call Plaxico Burress by a new nickname, "Plaxi-glass." Burress would respond that plexiglass bends but doesn't break.

John W. Ferguson/Getty Images

Tony Siragusa added to the quote circus, commenting on the mass of Steelers fans who tended to find their way into Baltimore's stadium for Ravens home games:

"My suggestion is if you see someone with black and gold on, follow them in the bathroom and take care of business yourself. There's no cameras in the bathroom."

Amidst a carnival of colorful promotions that could make a wrestler jealous, the two teams prepped for another battle in Baltimore. Pittsburgh again dominated the early going, but the Ravens were hanging around, merely trailing 13-7 late in the second half.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, before legions of purple-clad fans at PSINet Stadium, Kordell Stewart hit Bobby Shaw for a monumental 90-yard touchdown pass. The once raucous crowd was suddenly silent; Shaw's dead sprint marking the first time Pittsburgh was able to pull away from their division foe, despite their dominant play.

The momentum-securing score gave Pittsburgh a commanding lead, and the Steelers won the game 26-21. Even more aggravating for the surely vengeful Ravens was that the Black and Gold had just secured the final AFC Central Division Championship. Realignment would change the divisions in 2002.

In a season of redemption for Kordell Stewart, domination by the defense (Kendrell Bell and Jason Gildon combined for 21 sacks) and complete control by the running game, the stars seemed to be aligning for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If they indeed aligned, it was never in a more straight line than for the regular-season series against Baltimore. The defending champions were outgained in total yardage by a whopping 824-390.

Still, the win/loss ratio for each team still matched.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Baltimore secured a wild-card playoff berth, defeating the Dolphins 20-3. Suddenly, if Pittsburgh had any shot at the Super Bowl, they would have to go through the defending champs. 

Could the stars align one more time?

Some historic streaks were working against the Steelers. Tight end Shannon Sharpe had won a dozen straight playoff games. Brian Billick was undefeated in the Steel City. And, most importantly, the Ravens had proven themselves as a formidable road team in the postseason, winning in Adelphia Coliseum (Tennessee), Oakland Alameda Coliseum and Joe Robbie Stadium (Miami) before heading to wage war in the 'Burgh.

Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers had never lost a playoff game to a division rival.

Seemingly a prerequisite requirement prior to each game of the suddenly surging rivalry, the Ravens continued to wage battle leading up to the key contest.

To add to the hype of the teams' first ever playoff games versus each other, rumors circulated that prior to their wild-card playoffs bout one week earlier, Baltimore conducted a "ceremonial pregame shower" in Miami to "mark their territory." Of course, hearing this, the rumor mill began circulating, turning Heinz Field into a potential Ravens Receptacle.  

Despite the back-and-forth rumblings between a proud champion and a historically successful outfit looking to reclaim its place among the league's elite teams, both franchises surely knew the time to talk the talk was expiring.

However, if they both also knew to "walk the walk," it was only the Steelers who showcased such aplomb.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Adding to the Steelers' determination was the circumstances involving running back Jerome Bettis.  Despite being injured for nearly seven weeks, the Bus had managed another 1,000-yard season. He was slated to return for the critical divisional-playoff affair.

Unfortunately, a painkilling injection caused severe numbness in his leg, and Bettis was dramatically ruled out of the game in the final moments prior to kickoff.

An angry Bettis let his emotion out in a showcase for all to witness, sobbing due to his inability to assist the team in such a critical contest. If their steely-eyed resolve hadn't fully set in to send a message to Baltimore, the desire to win for Jerome settled the issue.

According to safety Lee Flowers:

"I think it fired us up even more when we found out. It made the defense put on even more of a performance."

The emotionally charged Steelers would jump on the Ravens early. For the sudden rise of Baltimore,  verbal jousts back and forth from this perceived "cocky pretender to the throne," and more, the Steelers let loose on the Ravens.

Quite quickly, January 20, 2002, would see the Baltimore Ravens become the "Purple People... EATEN!"

All quarterbacks make mistakes under duress, but the scouting report on Elvis Grbac indicated that he was even more prone to fold amidst pressure than most. 

The Steelers knew they would have to get a few "remember me" shots on the Ravens' signal-caller early. Exceeding all expectations, Pittsburgh got pressure on the first play, and Grbac followed the pregame scouting report to a tee.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Joey Porter hit Grbac, and his attempted pass floated (or, more so, flailed) through the air and directly into the arms of Chad Scott. Scott's interception gave Pittsburgh the football in Baltimore territory.

Kordell Stewart took the field. After three years of hardship that undermined him and called into question his ability to quarterback at a professional level, Stewart's play in 2001 likened back to his stunning '97 season, which saw equal parts athleticism and solid passing. Limiting his turnovers and getting back into a groove that had been lost for far too long, "Slash" wanted to shed his former nickname once and for all with a championship.

It all had to begin with a solid playoff outing against Baltimore. More than anyone, Kordell knew a fine regular season would be forgotten without a solid showing in January. His offense got off to a fine start.

Just as it had in the two regular-season contests against the Ravens, the offense began to gain yards in huge chunks. In fact, the unit's first three plays from scrimmage netted 37 yards.

It began with a 12-yard end-around to Amos Zereoue, playing in place of the surprisingly deactivated Bettis. Kordell Stewart gained 11 yards on the next play, and a 14-yard strike to Bobby Shaw set the Steelers up deep in Baltimore territory.

However, 3rd-and-goal from the Baltimore 2-yard line saw Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala slammed in the backfield by linebacker Jamie Sharper, forcing a Kris Brown field goal.

Elvis Grbac and the Ravens offense, which had been maligned and criticized all season—especially in the absence of Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer, took the field for a second time. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

The surging Steelers defense dominated again, forcing a three-and-out. On third down, Mike Jones sacked Grbac, and a lackluster punt gave Pittsburgh wonderful field position.

So far, the contest was keeping to the form showcased in each of the previous two outings, but the Steelers were unable to take a commanding early lead in either of those games. Things were about to change...

Kordell Stewart's second drive saw a focus on the passing game, and No. 10 found fan-favorite Hines Ward twice, totaling 37 yards. 

The drive ended quickly when Amos Zereoue bounced off Ray Lewis and lunged into the end zone for a one-yard score. Pittsburgh had a commanding early lead, 10-0.

Needing a championship response, Baltimore's offense was not up to the task, surrendering in three plays for the second consecutive possession. Into the second quarter, the Ravens offense had only accomplished a single first down.

The prideful Ravens defense, knowing it would have to make a huge play to reset the competitive phase of the game, came through.

A terribly underthrown pass by Kordell Stewart was intercepted by Chris McAlister in front of Plaxico Burress, and the corner returned the football 18 yards to the Pittsburgh 7-yard line.

Like deja' vu from their previous meetings, the Black and Gold had dominated the entire first quarter, but it seemed likely they would soon only be ahead by three points anyway.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

Instead, nobody knew the icy depths that the Baltimore offense could sink to. In ideal position to cut into the lead, Grbac needed only to avoid the key mistake, and the score would have quickly been 10-3.

With pressure coming from front four and the pocket collapsing, Grbac threw his pass quickly, intended for Shannon Sharpe in the end zone. With the timing off, the throw was wide of the Hall of Fame tight end.

Brent Alexander intercepted the Baltimore threat, and the Steelers offense had the chance to rub the Ravens' beaks in it!

Traveling 71 yards, anchored by a 15-yard facemasking penalty by Peter Boulware and a long Troy Edward run on a misdirection reverse, the drive ended with a missed Kris Brown field goal attempt. The kicker was 1-of-6 against the Ravens up through that point. With any appreciation, he's still on the Baltimore roster's current Christmas card list.

A third three-and-out by the Baltimore offense in the first half preceded a Pittsburgh scoring drive.  Receptions by Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward got the Steelers into Baltimore territory, setting up a "bend but don't break" moment for the defending champion's defense.

A field goal or touchdown was the difference between a two and three-score game. 

Pittsburgh's offense dictated the battle, most demonstratively illustrated when Alan Faneca pancaked linebacker Ray Lewis on a five-yard run by Zereoue nearing midfield. Later in the drive, Amos picked up nine yards off left tackle to set up a 1st-and-goal, then leaped over the offensive line and into the end zone for the decisive one-yard score.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Chad Scott celebrates first quarter interception.

The stunned Ravens were in the midst of a perfect Pittsburgh storm, which seemed to come together as naturally as the confluence of the Steel City's own three rivers. The rumbling thunder of the crowd grew to a crescendo when lightning struck the Baltimore offense again.

Running back Terry Allen fumbled the football, and the oft-unreliable Brown connected from 46 yards to give Pittsburgh a 20-0 lead.

With under four minutes left in the first half, the embarrassed Baltimore offense, fresh off a demonstrative tirade by coach Brian Billick, finally moved forward. Until that point, the theme of the game had been: quote the Ravens, "Never score!"

For most of the first half, it seemed that a shutout could easily be the season-ending reality for the defending champs.

Shannon Sharpe made four catches for 48 yards on Baltimore's lone offensive scoring drive, one of those reception yielding Baltimore's only third down conversion of the game (1-for-12). With 51 seconds left before halftime, Matt Stover's 26-yard field goal got the Ravens on the board.

In the second half, Pittsburgh's offense grew stagnant, squandering the opportunity to completely blowout their overwhelmed AFC Central adversary.

Instead of putting their foot on Baltimore's proverbial throat and pressing down, Jermaine Lewis allowed some fresh air into the Ravens' lung, along with some fresh thoughts about the credibility of a miraculous comeback.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

Josh Miller's punt was fielded by Jermaine Lewis at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line. Almost a year earlier, Lewis's jaunt down the right sideline in Super Bowl XXXV carved his name into eternal history, answering the Giants' lone score of the game with a special teams touchdown of his own.

At Heinz Field, Lewis made another key special teams play, following a wall of blockers and easily evading the punter for an 88-yard touchdown return. This marked a new playoff record for longest punt return, and the dominated Ravens suddenly had hope, trailing only 20-10.

As if fully aware of the reprieve they had given to Baltimore, Pittsburgh's offense shifted back into gear.  Immediately following the electrifying punt return, the Steelers offense embarked on a six-minute, 12-play, 83-yard journey that effectively ended the competitive phase of the game.

Fittingly, the drive was capped by Plaxico Burress, who had dealt with the most decisive brunt of the Ravens' verbal jousts, most notably from outward tight end Shannon Sharpe.

On a deep slant between corner Chris McAlister and former Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson, Plax caught a perfect pass from Kordell Stewart. Turning upfield toward the end zone, only Woodson was in position to stop Burress from putting the game away.

Instead of the necessary tackle, Rod found himself planted to the ground by a demonstrative stiff arm, left only to look up as "Plaxiglass," hellbent on scoring, broke the Ravens' backs.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Zereoue's second quarter touchdown leap puts PIT ahead 17-0.

A final interception, Brent Alexander's second pick of the game, further sealed Baltimore's fate, and the Steelers won the game, 27-10.

 

With such a decisive victory, the former champions were unable to hide behind a myriad of potential excuses. The proof was on film, and the outcome was born from a clear, devastating mismatch that had been working against the champions all season.  This time, there were no timely breaks, no reprieves, no last hour call from the governor.

This time, the Ravens got cooked.  And, fittingly, their goose was cooked as well.

One bird was forced to munch on another as the Ravens, and Tony Siragusa, had to eat crow.

Siragusa had just played in his final NFL game, and his surprising humility was very satisfying to the ears of Steelers fans:

"Pittsburgh played an outrageous game. If they keep playing this way, I have no doubt they'll be world champions like we were last year. It's funny because I started my career here as a Pitt Panther and I'll leave it here."

Unfortunately, the excitement of a 13-3 season and emphatic win over Baltimore was tempered shortly thereafter.

Tony Siragusa's quote, which indicated the potential for a Pittsburgh championship, included one prerequisite condition. "If they keep playing this way..."

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Steelers didn't.

Following the huge win over Baltimore, many Steelers fans relaxed as the "Cinderella" Patriots came to town—huge underdogs led by an apparent journeyman quarterback by the name of Tom Brady

 

In reality, the kid Q.B. got hurt, but Drew Bledsoe managed the AFC championship game just enough for the visiting Pats. New England was the beneficiary of a slew of Steelers gaffes—most notably two huge special teams errors and a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by Kordell Stewart.

Stewart would never find quarterbacking success in the Steel City again, save for a brief stint in relief of Tommy Maddox during the middle of the 2002 season—his last in Pittsburgh.

While the '01 campaign may have had a disappointing ending, most fans and NFL analysts point to the season as the beginning foundation for the NFL's greatest modern rivalry.

****************************************************************************

The Pittsburgh Steelers have blessed their fans with an abundance of exhilarating games. The "Catalog of the Classics" runs deeper for the Black and Gold than most other NFL teams, especially in the modern era. For that reason, many of the team's greatest games are easily lost within its rich history, a lengthy volume that spans six Lombardi Trophies and an absurdity of spoils!

Every week of the team's 2012 offseason, we will look back at one of the great Steelers games that many fans may not remember. In this way, the epic bouts will no longer be...

The Forgotten Classics! 

Please enjoy these previous installments:

Vol. 1: The Immaculate Interception; 1997, @ New England Patriots

 

Vol. 2: Streak Busters; 1982, @ Dallas Cowboys

Vol. 3: Rookie Quarterbacks Collide; 2004, @ New York Giants

Vol. 4: The Jinx Survives Sudden Death; 1978 & 1979, vs. Cleveland Browns

Vol. 5: A Rivalry Remembered; 2000, vs. Oakland Raiders

Vol. 6: Wild Win in the Windy City; 1995, @ Chicago Bears

Vol. 7: Eighteen Wins, One Loss; 1984, @ San Francisco 49ers

Vol. 8: Falling Giants; 1964, vs. New York Giants & @ Cleveland Browns

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