At the beginning of last season, the NFL
's top rivalry was the Patriots
. That matchup, featuring two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and several playoff meetings, had captured the nation's attention.
It remains one of the top rivalries. But, by the end of last season, the Steelers
surpassed it and moved into the top spot.
With the two teams battling it out for the division year in and year out, almost every game has been meaningful. Several of the games have been epic like the 2001 playoff match-up and this year's AFC title game.
With rare exceptions, the two teams have been on top of the division from the time it was formed. When they play, it is a slugfest with the two teams striving to outhit each other.
The AFC Championship game this year, their third matchup in '09, was one of the hardest hitting games of all time. When Ryan Clark put the final big hit of the game on Willis McGahee, I was afraid he might never get back up.
There is added intensity because the teams mirror one another. Both have tough physical defenses and seek to establish a dominant ground game. Both try to flat out outphysical opponents.
The teams have also both had success against each other with the nod usually going to the home team. Pittsburgh
's win in Baltimore this year was a rare road win in the series.
The teams hate each other, the fans hate each other, subplots surround each game, but there is grudging respect on both sides. Their fans circle these games at the beginning of the year and count down the days until the next slugfest. The only thing they don't look forward to is the injury list after the game.
The rivalry has even featured comedy, like when Joey Porter stood outside the Ravens' bus challenging Ray Lewis to a fight. Which doesn't quite top Shannon Sharpe's comments back in 2001 when Jerome Bettis said Takeo Spikes is as good as Ray Lewis.
The always quotable Sharpe responded, "That's like saying Dude, Where's My Car? is just as good as Titanic. At some point in time, you've got to be realistic. I don't mean no disrespect to Takeo, because Takeo Spikes is a great football player, but he's not Ray Lewis. Let's not fool ourselves." Who would have known that Sharpe is a Kate Winslet fan?
He also named Plaxico Burress, "Plexiglass" before one of their matchups. There was also an incident where the Raven's Tony Siragusa dared Steelers' fans to follow him into a bathroom.
And nothing quite puts a smile on Hines Ward's face like taking the field against the Ravens, even after talk of bounties.
During the Bill Cowher era of Steelers' football, the rivalry was plenty nasty. That's where it took off. The Ravens got their Super Bowl win first in 2000 putting added pressure on Cowher. And Cowher and Ravens' coach Brian Billick appeared to despise one another, much like their players.
There was also always the added subplot of who had the best defense, a tradition that very much remains intact.
While the Steelers and Ravens have matched up in the playoffs twice, they've almost always had to top their arch-rival during the regular season just to get into the playoffs.
Steelers-Ravens is all about pride, hard earned respect, and hate. It is now, as of this year, the NFL's best and hardest hitting rivalry. And with two young coaches and quarterbacks, looks to remain must see TV for years to come.
Before the AFC Championship game, Tomlin said, "Us and the Ravens. It'd be a big game if it was a scrimmage. It just happens to be the AFC Championship Game."
The NFL features some great rivalries. The Patriots-Colts remains the best non-divisional rivalry. The NFC East has a few notable rivalries, but none of these tops the Steelers and the Ravens.