The bitter feelings between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers were ratcheted up last season when the AFC North rivals brawled over the division title and the right to advance to the Super Bowl.

The stakes aren't as high tonight at M&T; Bank Stadium, and some big-name starters will not play. (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has not recovered from concussion-related symptoms, is now expected to join Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs on the sidelines.)

But the players who are suiting up insist the intensity remains feverish because there's still plenty to fight for.

No longer among the elite teams in the NFL, the Ravens (5-5) and Steelers (6-4) are certainly among the most desperate. Both need a victory to climb out of a crowded AFC wild-card race, and both relish the chance of stepping on the other to do so.

"It's always good to hurt their chances. [But] we got our backs against the wall," Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "This game might be a little nasty."

The burning emotions of this feud continue to be "pure respect, but pure hatred," Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward affirmed a few days ago.

This time, the ramifications of this grudge match affect more than the Ravens and the Steelers. Not counting the division leaders, there are six AFC teams with a 5-5 record or better battling for two wild-card spots.

The importance of last season's showdowns - the Ravens and Steelers played for the AFC North title in December and the AFC championship in January - elevated the rivalry to national prominence. Even though control of the division has been lost this season (thanks to the surprising Cincinnati Bengals), the bad blood between the Ravens and Steelers continues to exist.

"It's always going to be a rivalry," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "You'll see things that typically don't happen in normal games. So, we've got to expect the unexpected against them. It's just one of those games where you buckle those chin straps and say, 'Let's go.' "

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin dubbed this "Redemption Sunday" because the Super Bowl champion Steelers play the Ravens on national television after losing two straight games.

It's a theme that seems better suited for the Ravens, who lost all three meetings to the Steelers last season. Each game was decided in the fourth quarter or overtime. The average margin of defeat was 5.3 points.

Dropping close games has been the running theme for the Ravens this season, too. The Ravens have lost five games by a combined 23 points, an average margin of 4.6 points.

"It's a big game for us," Johnson said. "[The Steelers] definitely finished us, especially in that championship game. Those guys turned it on in the fourth quarter, and we kind of wore out. In order to beat the Steelers, you have to play four full quarters."

Johnson added: "You'd better do it this week. If there is any team in the league that you got to finish, it's these guys."

It has seemed like last man standing at some points in the rivalry.

In the first meeting last season, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis fractured the shoulder of Rashard Mendenhall, ending the season for the Pittsburgh running back. In the AFC championship game, Ravens running back Willis McGahee was carted off the field after taking a hard hit to the helmet by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark.

"The most intense rivalry in the NFL," said Cris Collinsworth, the analyst for NBC's "Sunday Night Football." "You have to wear pads just to watch."

The Ravens have built a sordid reputation with the Steelers from the supposed bounties (Suggs has since denied this) to an alleged spitting incident (Frank Walker said he had a "slobber moment").

The Steelers push the limit of the rules, too, especially Ward, who is known for blindsiding the Ravens.

"We'd love to get a shot on him if he's around the pile also just because that's how you play the game of football," Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said on Brian Billick's Fox Sports show. "He kind of brings that out in every one of our defensive players."

Asked whether he knew how many Ravens would like to hit him, Ward said: "I would like to hit them just as much as they would like to hit me. One thing about this game: Win, lose or draw, you will come out of this game hurting."

The pain could be more than physical tonight. A loss could significantly hurt either team's chances of reaching the postseason.

"Each of us wants to prove which is the better team and which is the more physical team," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said.

"I think the way you do that is you go out there and win. You put more points on the board than the other team does. It's a heated rivalry between the fans. I think both sides enjoy it. Whichever side wins is going to enjoy it a little more."

Ravens online

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* 5 Things We Learned from the game


* Galleries from Baltimore Sun photographers

* Updates on the Ravens Insider blog


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