PITTSBURGH — — After the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Ravens in six of eight meetings between 2008 and 2010, the Ravens spoke openly about their desire to build a team full of playmakers who could beat their rivals and overtake them in the AFC North.
The Ravens accomplished that mission in 2011, sweeping the season series and also winning the division for the first time since 2006 by stomping the Steelers in the season opener then breaking their hearts when Torrey Smith caught a last-minute touchdown pass in Pittsburgh.
But as the 6-3 Steelers prepare to welcome back the 7-2 Ravens to Heinz Field on Sunday night, with first place in the AFC North yet again on the line, their players are saying almost to a man that there is no score to settle. The company line is that the Ravens — as formidable as they are and as fierce as this rivalry is — are just another team in their path toward another NFL title.
"It's a football game — like the other 15 I play every year. It's a football game," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "I put no more importance on it than any other division game, and that's the honest-to-God truth. I know people get upset with me when I say it. Fans boo-ha-ha about it. But you know, Coach [Mike] Tomlin always says it's a nameless gray face. These guys are standing in our way and are a team we have to beat in order to win this division. So it's important."
After a 2-3 start, the Steelers have won four straight games — among that gauntlet of gray faces were the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions — but they lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Monday's 16-13 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Byron Leftwich will replace Roethlisberger, but the Steelers are 0-4 against the Ravens when he is out of the lineup.
The Ravens have their own issues heading into Sunday night, but they have won 11 straight AFC North games dating back to their 13-10 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 5, 2010. Going 6-0 in a division typically dominated by the Steelers — five AFC North titles and two Lombardi Trophies in the past decade — was the difference in the division last year, as both teams finished 12-4.
Now, for the first time since 2006, the Ravens aren't hunting the Steelers. They are the hunted.
"That means nothing," Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain said. "This is one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL. ... You don't go into a fight thinking, 'Man, I can beat him.' You go into a fight thinking, 'Man, he can kick me just like I can kick him.' So that's the mentality."
Forget kicking. A year ago, the Ravens gave the Steelers a blunt-object-type beatdown at M&T Bank Stadium. The lowest blow came when they faked an extra point to score a two-point conversion in the third quarter even though an extra point would have given them a nice, round 21-point lead. The margin of victory in the 35-7 win was the widest in the history of the rivalry.
Eight weeks later, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco daggered his long-time tormentors with his 26-yard touchdown pass to Smith with eight seconds left, stealing a 23-20 win. It was the first time since John Harbaugh became coach in 2008 that the Ravens beat Roethlisberger at Heinz Field. In the bowels of the stadium after the thrilling comeback, a happy Harbaugh cut his chin while jumping on general manager Ozzie Newsome, who helped him build a team that twice was better than the Steelers.
"Getting blown out or losing close, it doesn't really matter," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "You don't want to lose to those guys, no matter how you do it. I'm sure it's the same way with them."
But despite getting swept, there is no score to settle, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley claims. Left guard Willie Colon said the Steelers just "need this win in the long run of things." Tight end Heath Miller stiff-armed a question about the hatred between the two teams, saying it was an exaggeration. Hampton admits, though, that "there's definitely a bad taste in our mouths" after last season.
"Nobody wants to lose to their rivals," he said. "Especially when they talk as much as they do."
Yet, so far, this week — they call it "Ravens week" in Pittsburgh — has been a far cry from years past, when the two bruising teams from blue-collar, Rust Belt cities would lob verbal grenades at each other from 180 miles away before they settled their differences out on the football field.
The rivalry has lost a little juice with former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward in retirement and Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis on injured reserve with a torn triceps. Pittsburgh reporters were disappointed by a subdued performance from linebacker Terrell Suggs during his Wednesday conference call. The chattiest of Steelers have been unusually tight-lipped, too.
While the Steelers acknowledge that the Ravens, as Woodley put it, "whooped" them last year, they still exude quiet confidence after beating them in years past, particularly when it mattered most.
"You can't fix last year," Clark said. "If we win two games this year, it's not going to turn back the hands of time and erase those two. Them winning two games last year didn't erase the fact that we beat them in the playoffs the year before [or] that we beat them in the AFC championship [in 2008]. … It's a different year, a different game — and we have to win it because it's the next one."
But as often as they are reciting Tomlin's non-confrontational mantra about their opponents' faces whenever a microphone is shoved in their own, Steelers players know deep down that the nameless gray faces they will butt heads with Sunday night at Heinz Field will be wearing black and purple helmets.
That should elicit emotion, and the bad memories, the bitter taste and the hard feelings will come rushing back.