BALTIMORE -- If this particular rivalry between bitter division foes happened to be represented by a symbol -- think of it as Prince meets the NFL -- for 15 seasons now the bloody nose would have been entirely apt.
Steelers-Ravens is always a knock-down, drag-out fight, and it always goes 15 rounds. And if anything, Sunday night's outcome at M&T Bank Stadium only reinforced everything we already thought about the ferocious way Pittsburgh and Baltimore play football.
Just ask Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he of the bloodied and broken nose in the first half, and the game-winning touchdown pass in the final three minutes of the Steelers' gut check of a 13-10 victory over the Ravens. Nothing about the way Pittsburgh played to win this game was remotely novel, but Roethlisberger made one key discovery on this night: You don't pay anywhere near as much attention to the pain in your broken foot once you break your nose.
"I just knew it was bleeding, and then when I got to the sideline I could tell just by the look on everyone's face that something wasn't right,'' said Roethlisberger, who took a shot to his schnoz from the left hand of Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata on the Steelers opening possession. "I looked real quick. I don't know, I look like I just went 12 rounds with Pacquiao.
"We just find ways to get it done. It may not be pretty [meaning the win], obviously, look at me, but we get it done.''
The Steelers and Ravens don't do pretty. Never have, never will. But that's OK because thrilling, suspenseful and physical football beyond compare will suffice every time. When these two play, the collisions are often so fierce that the offensive football suffers from the impact. That's what happened again this time, but there's almost a beauty in how Pittsburgh and Baltimore always hit first and ask questions later.
"That's Steelers-Ravens right there,'' Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said, opening his postgame news conference. "That's why we believe that's the number one rivalry in football. It's a humbling thing to be a part of, and we're fortunate to come out on top tonight, of course.''
I suppose the Patriots and Colts would have something to say about being the NFL's premier rivalry, and the Jets and Pats could give us another instant classic to enjoy Monday night in Foxboro. But when it comes to playing defensive football, and delivering the kind of bone-jarring hits that fans crave, how can you do better than a meeting of these two AFC North rivals? Especially when both came into the game at 8-3, tied for first in the division, having already played one three-point slobber-knocker earlier this year in Pittsburgh (won 17-14, by Baltimore)?
"It is [the best rivalry in the league],'' no less an authority than Steelers receiver Hines Ward declared afterward. "I mean, the Jets and Patriots are great teams. But this rivalry has been going on for years. The 13 years I've been here, it's always been Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And it showed tonight. It's a hard-hitting battle, a low-scoring game, and it came down to situational football.''
Which, loosely translated, means it came down to defense, as it seemingly always does when the Steelers and Ravens meet. Could this one really have ended any other way than with a monstrous play turned in by one of these teams' defensive stars at the critical juncture? This time it was Steelers' all-world safety Troy Polamalu who provided the signature moment, sparking Pittsburgh's comeback win by blitzing in to strip sack Joe Flacco with 3:13 left in the game and Baltimore leading 10-6. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered the loose ball and returned it 19 yards to the Ravens 9, setting up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown.
"Troy's a great player,'' Tomlin said. "A lot of guys would go in there and sack the quarterback. He sees the game a little differently. That's what makes him special. He got the ball out. Unfortunately we weren't able to get the ball in the end zone, but our offense finished the job for us.''
The offense finished the job when Roethlisberger found short-yardage back Isaac Redman on a third-and-goal pass from the 9, three plays after Polamalu's big takeaway. Redman made the Steelers' only touchdown happen with an outstanding individual effort, catching the ball at the 6, then spinning and churning his way past both safety Dawan Landry and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson on his way into the end zone.
"I made the biggest play in the biggest game I've ever played,'' Redman said. "It just goes to show you that the hard work paid off. This was like a 12-round fight, and we hung in there long enough and won.''
The Steelers had to show some resilience after seeing Roethlisberger's nose broken early, punter Dan Sepulveda sidelined by a season-ending ACL injury (he continued to hold for kicker Shaun Suisham), starting right offensive tackle Flozell Adams being shelved with a high ankle sprain, and tight end Heath Miller leaving the game via concussion after being nailed by Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain (a hit that's almost certain to draw a fine under the new defenseless receiver rule).
Pittsburgh was bloodied and battered, but it was never out of a game that Baltimore led 10-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Steelers kept hammering away at the Ravens, and eventually it was Baltimore that blinked.
"Hats off to Ben, he's a warrior,'' Ward said. "He actually looks better with a broken nose. But to stay in there and fight back, he's just a trooper. That's why I like everything about him. He's a winner, and I know when he's out on the field he gives us a great chance to win.
"But hats off to all the guys. When Dan went down, Flo went down, Heath Miller went out with a concussion, we were slim pickins' out there trying to figure out who was going to be [in what] personnel. I was going to line up at tight end one time. But we found a way to stay together. It's just great to beat up on Baltimore, man. It's hard to win in Baltimore. We haven't done it too many times.''
The last time the Steelers managed a win here was actually two short years ago, in a low-scoring slugfest game that was remarkably similar to this one. Then again, at this point all the Ravens-Steelers games seem like Groundhog Day. Their last seven meetings were decided by margins of three points in overtime, four, nine, three in overtime, three, three and three. In 2008, the Steelers used a December win here to lock up the AFC North and then springboard their way to the franchise's sixth Super Bowl title.
At 9-3, Pittsburgh is now one game ahead of the 8-4 Ravens, and the Steelers might be in the process of seeing some recent history repeat itself. The Steelers have a three-game homestand just ahead, and only one of the games can be considered challenging: Cincinnati (2-10), the Jets (9-2) and Carolina (1-10). With just one division loss compared to Baltimore's two, Pittsburgh is in command of its fate in the AFC North. That's how vital Sunday's victory was.
Bloodied nose or not, the Steelers beat the Ravens and have again found their way to the elite class of the AFC.
"It's still tough, but we like where we're at,'' Ward said. "Tomorrow [night], we'll find out what happens with the Jets and Pats, but we're going to enjoy this one right now. We have a tough team coming in next in Cincinnati, but we control our own destiny, and that's all we can ask for.''