In 2001, the defending champion Ravens surrendered the last-ever AFC Central Division crown to the Steelers. While historians would mark this as a fitting achievement (the Steelers won the division for most of the previous three decades), Baltimore believed they were better than their division counterparts.
During the season, the Steelers lost for the first time at Heinz Field to their bitter rivals, dominating gameplay but missing four field goals. The Steelers' faithful enjoyed an encore performance in Baltimore (later on the list), but the result played out differently. The season series was tied at 1-1, and the grudge match was going to happen in the Divisional Playoffs.
The intensity leading up to the game was immense. When you look for a rivalry's origin, normally you can pinpoint it to a singular game or event or, at worst, era. Forgetting that the Browns of yesteryear are the Ravens of today, Baltimore was dreadful in the late 90's, causing the seemingly obvious "old Cleveland" factor to never truly find its velocity. Most experts trace the rivalry's origins to the 2001 regular season. I agree that this was the fertilizer. The plant budded in the second game, and a thorny rivalry was fully birthed in the playoffs. In simplest terms: rivalry ON.
To add to the hype of the teams' first ever playoff games versus each other, rumors circulated that a week earlier, Baltimore conducted a "ceremonial pre-game shower" in Miami to "mark their territory." Of course, hearing this, the rumor mill began circulating, turning Heinz Field into a potential Ravens Receptacle. To add to the ill-will, Shannon Sharpe began referring to Plaxico Burress as "plexiglass" Burress. The receiver's response? That plexiglass bends, but doesn't break. Perhaps if I'd won three straight Super Bowls (Sharpe won twice with Denver, then with Baltimore) and 12 straight playoff games, I'd feel cocky, too!
Tensions escalated, as the Ravens championship mettle and the Steelers statistical dominance of the two regular season games gave both teams a swagger they refused to yield. Eventually, as all word wars that are waged do, the battle took to the field, and real football was played. Or, should I say, real football was delivered by the Steelers and to the Ravens.
On his first throw (and the Ravens' first offensive play), Elvis Grbac (who was chosen to replace champion Trent Dilfer at quarterback in the off-season by Brian Billick) was hit, threw a duck, and was intercepted. A tone was set.
The Steelers jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Turnovers accumulated on the purple side of the ball, and the black and gold continued to capitalize. The Ravens eventually fought back, and a Jermaine Lewis punt return for a touchdown (special teams was the Steelers' bane in the early decade) cut the score to 20-10. That is when Plaxico Burress proved his "bend but not break" credentials, hauling in a late touchdown to draw the game to its final score of 27-10.
After the game, Tony Siragusa pronounced that the Steelers would win the Super Bowl. However, those great special teams that were mentioned birthed a dynasty in New England instead.