Sunday, January 23, 2022

Steelers vs. Ravens: A decade-by-decade breakdown of one of the NFL’s best rivalries

It didn’t take long for the Steelers and Ravens to become one of the NFL‘s best rivalries. While the rivalry is only a quarter century old, there has already been a slew of epic games between the two teams, with many of those games helping determine which team would win the AFC North. A few times, the winner of this game went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl

On Sunday, the two teams will add a new chapter to this rivalry, as Ben Roethlisberger will play in what is likely his final regular-season game. It could be Roethlisberger’s final game if the Steelers don’t get a win and outside help from the Jaguars, who are double-digit underdogs entering Sunday’s game against the Colts. The Ravens are also in need of a win and outside help if they are going to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. 

Before the two teams square off on Sunday, we decided to take a three-plus decade look at the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, a rivalry that is just as intense now as it’s ever been. 

1990s

Overall H2H record: Steelers 6-2

Longest winning streak: 5 (Steelers)

Best games: Steelers 42, Ravens 34 (1997); Ravens 31, Steelers 24 (1999)

After winning the first-ever game between the two teams, the ’96 Steelers, the defending AFC champion, was upset by Baltimore in Week 14. Ironically, the two scores were the same in both contests, with the winner prevailing each time by the score of 31-17. In 1997, the Steelers, following a 2-2 start, found themselves trailing the Ravens 21-0 in the first quarter and 24-7 at halftime. But led by Kordell Stewart’s five touchdowns (that included a 74-yard run in the fourth quarter), Jerome Bettis’ 137 rushing yards and Yancey Thigpen’s 162 receiving yards, the Steelers prevailed 42-34 in what is still the greatest comeback in franchise history. In their Week 11 rematch in Pittsburgh, the Steelers recorded a 37-0 win that remains the largest margin of victory in the rivalry’s history. 

While Pittsburgh swept the Ravens again in 1998, the games between the two teams were vastly more competitive. And after the visiting Steelers edged the Ravens by three points in Week 2 of the 1999 season, Baltimore finally broke through in Week 14. Facing a reeling Steelers team that was in the midst of a six-game losing streak, the Ravens prevailed 31-24 in what was their first victory in Pittsburgh. The Ravens were led that day by running back Priest Holmes (130 yards, one touchdown) and receiver Qadry Ismail, who caught three touchdowns while recording a Three Rivers Stadium record 258 receiving yards

2000s

Overall H2H record: Steelers 12-10 

Playoff H2H record: Steelers 2-0 

Longest winning streak: 5 (Steelers) 

Best game: Steelers 23, Ravens 14 (2008 AFC Championship Game)

“There’s people on both teams that genuinely don’t like each other.”

Ben Roethlisberger’s quote from 2009 best describes the feelings between the Steelers and Ravens over the last quarter-century. It was especially true in the 2000s when both franchises fought each other at least twice a year. During the decade, the two teams combined to win three Super Bowls while facing each other in the playoffs on two different occasions. The first meeting occurred in 2001, when Pittsburgh dethroned the defending champions at Heinz Field, 27-10. The win was the second of five consecutive victories in the series for the Steelers, who enjoyed the upper hand in the rivalry until Steve McNair, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed led Baltimore to a season sweep of Pittsburgh in 2006. 

Both teams were on near equal footing in 2008, as the Steelers and Ravens boasted the league’s top-two defensive units. While the Ravens were a formidable foe, the Steelers, led by Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, were just a little bit better in all three of their meetings against Baltimore that season. After rallying from behind to beat the visiting Ravens in Week 4, a Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the final seconds gave Pittsburgh a 13-9 win over Baltimore in Week 15 that helped the Steelers clinch the AFC North title. 

In one of the most physical playoff games in recent memory, the Ravens appeared to be on the verge of taking the lead late in the AFC Championship Game. Polamalu, however, essentially ended the game when he returned an interception off of Joe Flacco 40 yards for the game-clinching score. The Steelers ended up defeating the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, while the Ravens would have to wait six more years before getting their first postseason win over Pittsburgh. 

2010s

Overall H2H record: Ravens 13-9

Playoff H2H record: Tied 1-1

Longest winning streak: 4 (Ravens) 

Best game: Steelers 31, Ravens 27 (Dec. 25, 2016)

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry was nearly as good in the 2010s as it was the previous decade. Not only did the Ravens win their first ever decade against the Steelers (as far as win-loss record is concerned), Baltimore also won their first ever playoff game over Pittsburgh, as Joe Flacco led his squad to a 30-17 win over the Steelers in the 2014 wild-card round. 

Four years earlier, the Steelers – similar to what they did in 2008 – pulled off two improbable wins over their arch rival. Trailing the Ravens late in a Week 13 matchup in Baltimore, Troy Polamalu’s forced fumble of Flacco set up Ben Roethlisberger’s game-winning touchdown pass that helped the Steelers win the division. Six weeks later, after falling behind the visiting Ravens 21-7 in the divisional round of the playoffs, Roethlisberger’s 58-yard completion to Antonio Brown with just over two minutes left helped cap off Pittsburgh’s come-from-behind victory. 

While these games were classics, it’s impossible to pick against the 2016 Christmas Day showdown as the decade’s best game between the two franchises. In front of a national TV audience, the Ravens built a 20-10 lead before a pair of Le’Veon Bell touchdowns put Pittsburgh in front. After the Ravens regained the lead with 1:18 left, seven completions from Roethlisberger set up his game-winning touchdown pass to Brown with just four seconds left. The catch, referred to in Pittsburgh as the “Immaculate Extension,” clinched the division title for the Steelers while eliminating Baltimore from postseason contention. 

2020s

Overall H2H record: Steelers 3-0 

Best game: Steelers 20, Ravens 19 (Dec. 5, 2021) 

The balance of power in the rivalry has gone back to Pittsburgh during the start of the 2020s. The Steelers swept the season series in 2020 and are on the verge of a second straight sweep if they are able to defeat the Ravens on Sunday. 

The decade’s best matchup between the teams took place back in Week 13 of this season. After consecutive losses, the Steelers kept their season alive by rallying from behind to defeat the Ravens, who suffered a second straight loss after an 8-3 start to the season. Trailing 10-3 entering the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger led three scoring drives that included two that ended with touchdown passes to Diontae Johnson

Baltimore responded with Lamar Jackson‘s touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins‘ with 12 seconds left. But instead of tying the game and forcing overtime, the Ravens decided to go for the win on a two-point conversion try. On the attempt, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt was able to disrupt Jackson’s pass attempt for Mark Andrews, who was unable to pull down the errant throw. Watt led the Steelers’ defensive charge with 3.5 sacks, while Roethlisberger won his fourth consecutive game over the Ravens dating to the 2018 season. 

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