It's Steelers-Ravens week, meaning we can once more celebrate the fine art of smash-mouth, take-no-prisoners, last-man-standing football.
Some people may like the offensive ballerina that has been the Patriots versus Colts, but those games can not hold a candle to the Steelers-Ravens grudge matches, where two teams wage all-out war over every yard gained.
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 matchup and the 2008 AFC title game.
The Ravens did score some revenge for the championship game lost from two seasons ago by keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs last year, knocking them off on Dennis Dixon's first start in another closely contested battle.
Before the start of the season, this game looked compelling, but not must-see television. The Steelers would be playing without Ben Roethlisberger and few people really thought they would be competitive in this one.
Three games later, the Steelers are at the top of most power rankings after knocking off three teams that are 6-0 against everyone else they have played, sparked by a defense that has looked downright scary at times. At least two of the teams they have beaten without their star quarterback are playoff-caliber teams.
So, we are back to a situation normal for two very good teams who thrive off lights-out defensive football. Both these teams despise one another and are meeting in a critical divisional showdown, which is a glorious thing.
With rare exceptions, the two teams have been on top of the AFC North from the time it was formed in 2002. When they play, it is a slugfest with the two teams striving to out-hit each other.
The 2008 AFC Championship game, their third matchup that year, 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 play more physical games than their opponents.
The teams have both had success against each other, an important element of any rivalry, with the nod usually going to the home team.
The teams hate each other, the fans hate each other, subplots surround each game, but there is grudging respect on both sides.
The fans of both teams circle these games at the beginning of the year and count down the days until the next slugfest.
The only thing they do not 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 does not 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."
Sharpe also named Plaxico Burress, "Plexiglass" before one of their matchups, after which Burress torched the Ravens to spark a big win. Sharpe grudgingly said that Plaxico had earned his name back after the game.
There was also an incident where the Ravens' 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 a couple years back.
During the Bill Cowher era of Steelers' football, the rivalry was plenty nasty. That's where it took off. The Ravens getting their Super Bowl win first in 2000 putting added pressure on Cowher.
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 the NFL's best and hardest-hitting rivalry.
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 Ravens.
And, as with 2008, both teams may still be playing when the regular season ends.
The Ravens have one Achilles heel on defense this season: a secondary that features a patchwork group of cornerbacks. That will be the difference in this one.
Prediction for Round 1 in 2010: Pittsburgh 24, Baltimore 13.
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