Everything you want in a football feud can be found between the teams in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
Basically, everything the Pittsburgh Steelers once shared with the Cleveland Browns.
Stealing the latter franchise in the mid-1990s wasn’t enough for the city of Baltimore. Crabtown had to net Cleveland’s biggest rival as well. The Ravens have become Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh while the Browns aren’t even on the most wanted list.
Steelers players don’t deny it, either.
“Each and every year we play Baltimore, it’s one of those games you circle,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said during a Friday news conference. “Cleveland and Pittsburgh is a rivalry itself, but the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry is really heated, As in sizzling.
The decade-long animosity reached a boiling point in 2008. Following a Steelers overtime victory in September, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs got into hot water by claiming Baltimore defenders had placed a “bounty” on Ward and Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall. Suggs later ran from those comments like he was chasing Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers haven’t forgotten.
The officials then added fuel to the fire in December’s rematch with referee Walt Coleman’s controversial decision to award Pittsburgh the game-winning touchdown following an instant-replay review. The extra point created more hostility: Ravens cornerback Frank Walker allegedly spit into the open mouth of Steelers holder/punter Mitch Berger as the two argued after the kick.
With another chapter in the Ravens-Steelers war being written after Sunday’s battle, it will become even easier to forget how this book originally began.
The Ravens are still an extension of the Browns, just in a different city with flashier uniforms. Dismiss the fact that then-owner Art Modell abandoned the Browns’ legacy (all-time records, team colors, etc.) in 1996 when moving his franchise amid claims of economic hardship. Scratch any Ravens helmet long enough and you can find the color brown underneath the black-and-purple paint.
The Steelers and Browns have the AFC’s longest-running rivalry even with Cleveland not fielding a team from 1996 through 1998. The two franchises have played 114 games dating to 1950, making it one of the league’s great traditional pairings.
With only 112 miles separating the Steelers and Browns, the wins and losses took on added meaning. They became a matter of civic pride between two blue-collar fan bases building their own history of hatred.
“If you drove to a game in Cleveland in the 1960s, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for people with Pennsylvania license plates to come out of the stadium and find their tires slashed,” said James Fallon, a 60-year-old Pittsburgh native and Steelers fan. “Honestly, the same thing would happen here to those with Ohio plates.”
The Steelers slashed to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s. The next decade, the Browns were the better team. The two squads kept slugging away during the 1990s until Cleveland was forced to throw in the towel and Baltimore stepped into the ring.
“Playing these guys is like a heavyweight fight,” Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said of the Ravens. “It’s nasty.”
When the Browns returned in 1999, it was with a roster of glass-jawed palookas. In their home debut at a new stadium, Pittsburgh gave the Browns a 43-0 lashing that the franchise still hasn’t recovered from.
Meanwhile, the Ravens were perpetrating another case of identity theft by copying Pittsburgh’s model of success — a dominating defense paired with a run-heavy, ball-control offense. In 1998, Baltimore added former Steelers great Rod Woodson to a defense being bolstered by the addition of future stars like Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. Eventually, the Ravens switched to the 3-4 scheme that Pittsburgh has used exclusively since 1983. They also adopted the same hard-hitting attitude that has led to accusations of cheap shots and, according to Colon, “a little bit of pushing after the whistle.”
“You hate to admit this, but any time you have a great rivalry, it’s with teams who have similar types of guys,” said Baltimore defensive tackle Justin Bannan, who joined the Ravens in 2006. “These are two teams full of tough guys who never back down or take crap from anybody.”
Such chippyness — not to mention insults, brawls and ejections — contributed to a decade of memorable Ravens-Steelers moments on and off the field. Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe hilariously questioned Plaxico Burress’ toughness by referring to the Steelers wide receiver as “Plexiglass.” Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter tried boarding the Ravens team bus to fight fellow linebacker Ray Lewis in 2003 after he believed the latter had mocked his being shot in the buttocks at a nightclub. The next season, Porter mercilessly leveled Todd Heap after the Ravens tight end lined up with an obvious ankle injury on a spike play.
“When you get two bullies going against each other, it’s about who is the strongest bully,” Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.
But ultimately, what creates great rivalries are great games. The Steelers have won 16 of their past 17 against Cleveland, with the last loss coming in October 2003. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are far more evenly matched. The two teams have won all but one of seven AFC North titles since the division’s creation in 2002. Playing for a Super Bowl berth takes the Steelers-Ravens feud to an even higher level.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in the series after this,” Ward said. “You are always going to remember this …. The winner of this game is going to stick with (the loser) for a very, very long time.”
Maybe long enough for the Browns to regain relevance as more than a speed bump on Pittsburgh’s road to play the Ravens each season.