A ruptured right Achilles tendon in August 2016 prevented tight end Benjamin Watson from getting his first experience in the bitter rivalry between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. But he still got a taste of the fervor in Baltimore while driving his daughter to ballet on a Tuesday leading up to the first Ravens-Steelers meeting last year.
"I remember seeing multiple people with their Ravens jerseys on already," Watson recalled. "They were already ready in Baltimore for the game. So I know what this game means to the city."
Sunday's game between the Ravens (2-1) and Pittsburgh (2-1) – the first volley in their annual series – will almost certainly rank as must-see. Although the Steelers own a 22-20 lead in the regular-season meetings, the Ravens have won five of the last seven games.
Once arguably one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the AFC North is struggling to remain relevant. The division is tied with the NFC West for the fewest combined wins (four) and is the only one with two winless teams in the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns – although they play Sunday.
Even the records of the top two teams are somewhat suspect. The Ravens have defeated Cincinnati and Cleveland and got crushed nked 44-7 by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Pittsburgh has beaten the Browns and a Sam Bradford-less Minnesota Vikings squad and lost 23-17 in overtime to a 1-3 Chicago Bears team.
Still, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, in his 10th year, defended the division's sudden disappearing act.
"No matter who is at the top or who is at the bottom of the league and what their record is at the top or what their record is at the bottom, everybody always has a chance to beat everybody," he said. "You can say, 'Yeah, alright Joe, you guys have lost to Cleveland how many times?' The game's outcome does not necessarily reflect the types of games that we have been in with those guys.
"We have been in battles with Pittsburgh. We have to be right around 50-50 since I have been here. With Cincinnati, they have to have our number since I have been here. It is a tough division to play in, no doubt about that."
Cornerback Jimmy Smith echoed Flacco's sentiment.
"It goes up and down every year," he said. "One year, someone is the best. Who cares until you get to the end of the season? There are still 13 games to determine the best team. Who cares right now what the strength of the divisions are? We're just trying to get wins to get to the dance."
Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith compared playing in the AFC North to playing in the SEC, which he did with University of Kentucky.
"I say that just because of what we're going into," he said. "This is our big rivalry with the Steelers and we also have Cleveland and Cincy. That's how I look at it."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said making any overarching statements about the AFC North sounds premature.
"I think all of those things will be revealed at the end of this journey," he said. "I think we're all kind of writing the script of what types of teams we are and those conversations – however important or unimportant – are better had after."
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Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium, between the Ravens and Steelers could help return some of the division's luster. The Steelers' 31-27 win at Heinz Field on Christmas Day in 2016 drew 14.8 million viewers, the largest audience for any game aired on the NFL Network.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has played in 28 regular-season and playoff games against Pittsburgh, said the veterans have emphasized the importance of Sunday's game with the rookies and newcomers.
"You have to get an extra lift in the weight room," he said. "This is, I would say, the biggest rivalry in the NFL. It is definitely the most physical rivalry in the NFL, and it is because of the two teams' style of play. You don't cross paths without some things in common. We respect them, but we also know what it is."
Watson, who has played for the New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints, compared the Ravens-Steelers series to the Saints-Atlanta Falcons. But Watson also noted that he has dipped his toe in the AFC North when he played for the Cleveland Browns from 2010 to 2012.
"You have a lot of classic teams in this division – tough teams, tough cities, and hard-working people," he said. "It is always hard-hitting. I remember earlier in my career when I was in New England and I came over to Cleveland when I was a free agent and my wife and my parents saying, 'That is a hard-hitting division you are about to go to – the AFC North.' This rivalry definitely holds kind of a different feel."