It is a rivalry of similarity and proximity rather than difference and distance.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh are midsized cities on the water that are separated by a four-hour drive and the Allegheny Mountains. Both reached heights of prosperity in the Industrial Age and watched too many jobs ebb away in the late 20th century. Both have pinned hopes for the future on service and research industries and on downtown redevelopment.
Ravens linebacker Bart Scott calls Sunday's game "an opportunity for one of our organizations to really build up the level of hatred."
The feelings are reciprocated by Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, a prime instigator in the feud. "There is nothing like beating Baltimore," he told Pittsburgh reporters after the Steelers did just that in December. "I love being the most hated guy" in Baltimore.
The teams share as many traits as the cities.
They play in the same division and have competed for control of it since 2000. Both are known for punishing defenses with penchants for big plays. Given his lack of a big-time college pedigree and dreams of starting a Super Bowl early in his career, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is practically walking in the shoes of his Steelers counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger. When the Ravens hired John Harbaugh, several wizened coaches said he reminded them of Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin-fresh-faced but comfortable exerting authority.
"It's two teams that play a certain brand of football," Harbaugh says. "Physical and fundamental."
Fans see the rivalry the same way.
"They know each other extremely well and the better of the two is usually the AFC North divisional champion," says Tony Lombardi, founder of the fan Web site Ravens 24x7. "The competitive, hard-hitting battles that result from the pursuit of that crown serve as the core of the rivalry, and the fans know it. Rivalries require competitiveness, and the Ravens and their fans know that every game against the Steelers is a brawl."
The view is similar from the other side of the Alleghenies.
"It's just natural," says Ron Cook, who has watched Pittsburgh fans warm to the rivalry as a sports columnist for the Post-Gazette. "The cities are very much alike, they're close together and the Ravens are the most threatening team in the division."
He remembers Steelers fans booing Ray Lewis at the 2006 Super Bowl during a roll call of former Most Valuable Players.
"They hate him," he says. "They hate his dance and everything about him."
The Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry packs plenty of back story.
One of the greatest football players Pittsburgh has ever produced, John Unitas, performed his greatest feats in Baltimore. Worse, the Steelers had Unitas and cut him. That blunder contributed to a long run of Steelers mediocrity that coincided with the golden era of the Baltimore Colts.
A rivalry didn't blossom until the 1970s, when the Steelers became the league's dominant franchise and the chief roadblock for the high-scoring Colts, led by Bert Jones. The Steelers smashed Baltimore in the 1975 and 1976 playoffs.
A dormant period followed as the Colts sank to the bottom of the league and then left for Indianapolis. During this time, Maryland became a satellite home for thousands of Steelers fans.
When a new job brought Steve Chiurazzi from Pittsburgh to Maryland in 1988, a friend of his mother's mentioned a Steelers fan club in the Baltimore area. He stumbled into his first meeting at a pub in Westminster and thought, "Wow, I'm home."
Chiurazzi was member No. 36, but with so many workers fleeing economically depressed Western Pennsylvania and so many ex-Colts fans looking for a new team, the ranks swelled quickly. The club adopted a watering hole, the Purple Goose Tavern in Southwest Baltimore, and every Sunday during the season, its members drank Iron City beer and feasted on pirogis and Primanti Brothers sandwiches (grilled meat, cheese, coleslaw and french fries between two slices of Italian bread).
Chiurazzi, a Pasadena resident, met his future wife at "The Goose" during the 1995 AFC championship game.
"You really can't go anywhere in the area without seeing a Pittsburgh fan," says Sharon Lewandowski, a Pittsburgh native who works as an assistant principal at Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia.
But life as a local Steelers fan got less comfortable when the Ravens arrived in 1996. The Pittsburgh faithful had never harbored much animosity for Baltimore. The Cleveland Browns were their archenemies. That old rivalry cooled when the Browns became the Ravens, but when the Ravens became a divisional threat, the embers stirred once more.
It began on the Baltimore end.
"I really think the intensity of the rivalry stems in part from envy," Lombardi says. "The Steelers, much to the chagrin of Ravens fans, have been a very solid organization and one that is competitive almost annually. To a larger extent, I think the way Steelers fans travel so well and invade our stadium is what really fuels the intensity."
A Ravens-friendly bar sprouted up across the road from the Purple Goose. On game days, fans shouted insults from one pub to the other. Chiurazzi wore his Steelers garb to Ravens games and in return got a full beer dumped on him and a punch to the back of his head in the men's room.
"At first, I think it was more a rivalry in the eyes of the Ravens fans," he says. "But that has changed. You have two teams in the same division in such close proximity, and there are so many of our fans in the area. It has definitely become its own thing."
On field, the rivalry heated up in 2000, as the teams traded victories and taunts. The Ravens got the last laugh, winning the Super Bowl, but the Steelers returned the favor the next season, winning the division and ending Baltimore's title defense in the playoffs. They've gone back and forth ever since.
In January 2002, the Steelers decisively ended the Ravens' title defense with a 27-10 thrashing. In 2004, the Ravens handed the Steelers their only regular-season loss. In 2006, the Ravens beat the defending Super Bowl champions twice by a combined score of 58-7 and sacked Roethlisberger 14 times (including a particularly ferocious hit by Scott).
It all goes into the mix when the teams and fans build to a big showdown. And with a Super Bowl trip on the line, the hyping has begun for Sunday.
"If we win, I'll be out celebrating," Lombardi says. "If we lose, the safest place for me might be a rubber room."
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