This, ladies and gentlemen, is what sports is all about.
On Sunday night, in front of a national television audience and 65,000 screaming fans testing the limits of alcohol and fatty food consumption, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play host to the Baltimore Ravens in a game that is not historically for the feint of heart. This is a game fueled on hatred — between both the players on the field and the fans of the respective teams.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is indeed a mutual respect between these two teams. The two coaches consistently say the right things about the other teams, and players from both teams talk about both the ferocity of the hitting and the impact on the division race with a sort of reverence. But respect often takes a back seat to animosity when the whistle blows, and the fans get treated to a slugfest of epic proportions.
For the record, I’m a huge Ravens fan. I was a Colts fan until the infamous Mayflower vans took my team and a tiny piece of my soul with them to Indiannapolis, and after flirting with my hometown Redskins and the Chicago Bears for a few years, I jumped back on to Baltimore football when the Ravens brought with them the souls of thousands of Cleveland Browns fans to Charm City.
It hasn’t always been easy to root for the Ravens. Things started out slowly under Ted Marchibroda when the team first started donning the purple and black, and though the team improved under Brian Billick’s watch, and even won a Super Bowl, it wasn’t exactly aesthetically-appealing to watch them struggle on offense year after year. However, it was fun to watch them bash people on defense and, more times than not, the Ravens have been contenders for more than a decade.
Through good times and bad, insufferable quarterback play and receivers who couldn’t catch a cold on an airplane in February, there has been one constant — those two regular season games with the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to be brutal affairs that could make you wince from the safety of your couch.
Yes, many of the stars who have contributed to the building of this rivalry over the years will not be on hand Sunday night. Steeler receiver Hines Ward, who personally drove me crazy over the years with his blindside hits and constant smile, is retired now, flashing those teeth on television as an analyst. Troy Polamolu, Ben Roethlisberger and Ray Lewis are all injured and will miss the game, and the head coaches, Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh and John Harbaugh for Baltimore, are much less likely to start swinging at each other at midfield than previous coaches Bill Cowher and Billick always appeared close to doing.
That being said, the Ravens are currently 7-2 and the Steelers sit at 6-3, and the winner of Sunday night’s game will be in first place in the AFC North with only six games to play. If this were any two other teams in the same division with those records and as much as is at stake, this would be a huge game.
But this is Pittsburgh. And this is Baltimore. The two teams could each be sitting at 1-8 and somebody would be getting their teeth bashed in on national television.
And that’s what makes this beautiful.
This is the kind of rivalry that transcends sports. You don’t have to be a junkie of either team to settle in and bite your nails over the competition to enjoy this one. It’s like the New York Yankees taking on the Boston Red Sox, or the young men at West Point and Annapolis in their annual Army-Navy game, or Duke and North Carolina on the hardcourt. It’s fun to watch athletes who aren’t caring about contracts or future pro contracts for these games as much as they are concerned about winning that particular battle on that particular day.
Yes, many of the stars we’ve known to love or hate won’t be on the gridiron Sunday night for this epic showdown, but don’t let that fool you. The guys wearing those uniforms will be prepared, and they will be carrying a little extra adrenaline with them for this battle. It’s about first place in the division. It’s about playing your fiercest and most consistent rivals.
And it’s about bragging rights.
Oh, yes, this is most certainly a huge game for the players and teams involved, but it’s also nearly as important for the fans of the respective teams — and they face off again in just two weeks.
This one will be fun. And I believe it will go the Ravens way this week.
Ravens 24, Steelers 20.