Why Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens Rivalry Is Still NFL's Best

Andrew WatkinsCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2014

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 7:  Wide receiver Hines Ward #36 of the Pittsburgh Steelers fights with cornerback Chris McAlister of the Baltimore Ravens on September 7, 2003 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers defeated the Ravens 34-15. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
David Maxwell/Getty Images

Heading into last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, the rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks was touted as the NFL’s best. And that claim isn’t without merit.

The bad blood between the coaches is well noted. In 2009, Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford Cardinal ran up the score in a win over Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans, and Carroll famously greeted him with “what’s your deal?” at the game’s end.

And, of course, Richard Sherman had no qualms with letting viewers know that the tension didn’t end with the men in charge. His soon-to-be infamous postgame rant on Michael Crabtree has already been spoofed as a pro wrestling-style promo, and that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Nonetheless, I think it’s a little too soon to anoint this rivalry the game’s biggest. Sure, Sunday’s game was the memorable, hard-hitting affair many anticipated. But contests such as these are destined to harken back to the NFL’s fiercest present-day rivalry.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.

The matchups have been littered with likely Hall of Famers. Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison highlight the many Steelers who’ve been instrumental in this rivalry. And I’d be remiss not to mention the likes of Jamal Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs who opposed them.

As one might expect, so many fiercely talented competitors on one field has lead to a few “incidents."

In 2001, Shannon Sharpe referred to Plaxico Burress as “Plexiglas," a slight toward his injury woes. In a 2008 interview, Suggs said that the Ravens had a bounty on Rashard Mendenhall shortly after the rookie suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a meeting against Suggs’ squad.

And football fans won’t soon forget Mike Tomlin’s almost-crucial sideline gaffe in the teams’ Thanksgiving night showdown.

But like any great rivalry, most of the talking is done on the field.

Ward de-cleating Reed in a 2007 meeting is a lasting image for fans of the black and yellow. As is Ryan Clark’s frightening hit on Willis McGahee in the 2008 AFC Championship Game.

As for fans of the purple and black, they’ve seen their favorite players lay the wood on more than one occasion as well. A cringe-worthy tackle from Lewis caused the aforementioned Mendenhall injury.

Much like Sherman’s deflection to put the NFC Championship Game on ice, the Steelers/Ravens showdown boasts a slew of signature moments.

Polamalu’s game-clinching pick-six in the aforementioned AFC Championship Game is one that comes to mind on the Steelers’ end. Another is Antonio Brown’s 58-yard side-of-the-helmet catch to set up the winning score in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Baltimore fans fondly recall Bart Scott’s bone-jarring sack of Roethlisberger in 2006. The same goes for Torrey Smith’s go-ahead touchdown in a 2011 meeting between the teams. That game would eventually prove to be the difference in crowning an AFC North champ.

What most serves to distinguish this rivalry from its peers, however, is the closeness of virtually every meeting.

Since Roethlisberger was drafted, the Steelers are 11-11 against the Ravens. Joe Flacco lost his first three games against Pittsburgh, but he is 6-5 in matchups against the squad after his rookie year.

Using Roethlisberger’s rookie season as a starting point, 15 out of 22 Steelers/Ravens games were decided by a touchdown or less. This differs from the Seahawks/49ers, which has seen at least one blowout in each of the past four seasons.

One can undoubtedly make a valid argument as to why the Seahawks/49ers is the NFL’s premier rivalry, but I need a few more matchups like their last two from this season before I can consent to passing that torch.