I've seen a lot of brutal hits during my years covering the NFL, but I would be hard-pressed to recall many that were more vicious than the collision between Ravens running back Willis McGahee and Steelers free safety Ryan Clark late in the fourth quarter of the 2008 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh.
McGahee circled out of the backfield for a pass from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Just as McGahee caught the ball, Clark came flying in and delivered a right shoulder, hitting him in the helmet. Both players were knocked backward and McGahee fumbled the ball. Clark was actually knocked unconscious. McGahee, after a long time on the ground being tended to by medical personnel, was removed from the field on a flatbed cart. That neither player suffered a life-threatening injury was almost a miracle.
That crash of pads and bones personifies the intense competition that has developed between these AFC North teams. With apologies to Bears vs. Packers, Patriots vs. Colts, and Cowboys vs. any NFC East opponent, I think the Baltimore-Pittsburgh competition is the best rivalry in the NFL.
It was born in 1996, when Cleveland owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore and the team became the Ravens. But it seems like the rivalry really stepped up when the league reconfigured to eight four-team divisions in 2002, grouping the Steelers and Ravens together with Cincinnati and Cleveland to form the AFC North. Since then, Pittsburgh has captured five division titles and Baltimore has won three.
The series has been particularly entertaining since 2008, when John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach and the Ravens drafted Flacco. They have been a good match for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Although Pittsburgh won six of eight games in those first three years, including two in the playoffs, Baltimore swept the series last year.
"It's a good, old-fashioned alley fight," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You need a good one of those every now and then."
The Steelers will be without Roethlisberger -- it might be several weeks before we see him back in uniform -- which takes a bit of the edge off Sunday night's game. Roethlisberger suffered a sprained shoulder and damage to his ribs early in the fourth quarter of Monday night's 16-13 overtime win over Kansas City when linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston sacked him, forcing the Pittsburgh quarterback to land hard on his right elbow. Roethlisberger left the game holding his right arm close to his side.
So the Steelers will go with 10-year veteran Byron Leftwich, whose relief appearance on Monday night was his first game action since 2010 and who hasn't started a game since Sept. 27, 2009 -- a mere 38 months ago -- when he was with Tampa Bay. Leftwich hardly had time to knock the rust off his right arm playing less than a half against the Chiefs (he completed 7 of 14 passes for 73 yards), but he should be primed to go by Sunday night.
Leftwich and Roethlisberger both are 6-foot-5, but that's about as far as the similarities go. Roethlisberger has adapted well to new coordinator Todd Haley's offense, which requires the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. That's not one of Leftwich's strengths. He doesn't have a quick release, and his long windup sometimes makes him look more like a pitcher than a passer.
One of Roethlisberger's biggest strengths is his escape ability. He can move out of the pocket, shake defenders off his back and throw on the run once he finds an open receiver. Leftwich is more of a pocket passer with minimal mobility.
Drafted seventh overall by Jacksonville in 2003, Leftwich has bounced around the league, playing for the Jaguars, Falcons, Bucs and Steelers. He has played only 59 games, and his record in 49 starts is a mediocre 24-25. The good thing is he is surrounded by several playmakers, including wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders; tight end Heath Miller; and running backs Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
"It's not like I'm going out there with the 'Bad News Bears,' " Leftwich said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I know the playmakers on this team, and that gives me confidence knowing that I have a good football team around me. So, we'll see what happens."
We're used to seeing Baltimore play a dominating, sometimes suffocating, defense. It finished the 2011 season ranked third in total defense, second against the run and fourth against the pass. Through 10 weeks this season, those rankings have fallen to 27th, 26th and 26th.
Injuries to key players have reduced the defense's effectiveness. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the linchpin, suffered a torn triceps late in a Week 6 victory over Dallas and was placed on the injured reserve list, although he could come back late in the season. Cornerback Lardarius Webb tore the ACL in his right knee in the same game and is out for the season. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon injury) missed the first six games and run-stopping tackle Haloti Ngata has been slowed by a shoulder injury.
"They're not what they were years ago, but they're still solid," an AFC personnel director said of the Ravens defense. "Whereas they used to be able to control games with their defense and keep games close, and the offense just had to manage, now they've kind of flipped as a team to where the offense has to go out and make an impact and big plays, and the defense just has to get in there and hold serve."
Still, someone on the Ravens defense will need to step up Sunday night and make a game-changing play.
The Ravens' 6-4, 330-pound, run-stuffing tackle went to his third Pro Bowl last season. A first-round draft pick in 2006 (12th overall), Ngata has 32 tackles and three sacks this season. He had started 35 consecutive games before a shoulder injury kept him out of last week's victory over Oakland. Here are excerpts from his conversation with SI.com.
A lot better. From the rest I got last week -- I dressed for the game but didn't play -- I feel a lot better and I'm a lot closer to 100 percent.
I think they just wanted to see how we were going to do throughout the game. We got up on them kind of quick, so they just decided to keep me out. I probably would have gone out there if it had been closer.
Yeah, that was a little weird. I've never dressed and not played a game. I kept on warming up and my coach [defensive line coach Clarence Brooks] kept looking at me, like
I can't do some of the things I'm used to doing, such as locking [offensive] linemen out and then stabilizing that lockout. I'm not able to hold it as long and I just don't feel that strong. But as my strength comes back, a lot of my technique is coming back.
That was pretty awesome. It was pretty cool to see what your peers think about you. It's definitely an honor. But my goal and our team goal is to get championships. If that helps us win, then it's definitely cool, but I'm looking more forward to trying to get a championship.
The thing that has been really different is not hearing his voice on the field, his leadership, his passion. It's so addicting to have him around, knowing he's going all-out for us and knowing we can't go any less. I think his example and his leadership are the biggest things we are missing. That being said, we have a lot of other great leaders -- Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, myself. We've tried to keep it up and I think we've been doing a good job.
I think it's because we're so alike, the way we play. It's kind of like having your brother that you're always annoyed about. I really think we're more alike than people think, and that's what makes our rivalry bigger. It's like iron vs. iron. Just go at it, and usually the team that has been more physical has won. Hopefully we can be that team this weekend.
I think it's huge. His game makes his teammates a lot better, I think. His scrambling ability is almost an offense within itself. He scrambles, shakes guys off of his back and waits for receivers to get open and is able to throw it to them. I think that's definitely a big loss, but Leftwich has shown he can still be a starting quarterback in the league. He has a strong arm, and if you give him enough time he can find a receiver and make a play. Hopefully, we can disrupt that.
I think we still have some things to work on, especially for us on defense. We've been getting better, especially with stopping the run. If our offense can continue to stay hot and do the things they need to do, then we'll definitely be there. Hopefully we can get through these last two months with a bunch of wins.
Since taking over as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback in the third game of the 2004 season, Ben Roethlisberger has missed only 13 games. The Steelers are 8-5 in those games -- but four of those five losses came against Baltimore. Here is how the Steelers have fared without Big Ben.
First place in the AFC North will be on the line Sunday night. The Ravens are coming off a blowout victory over Oakland in which Flacco passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns, and another win would give the Ravens a 4-0 record in the division and a two-game edge on the Steelers, whom they'll play again in two weeks in Baltimore. A Pittsburgh victory would create a tie for first place.
After a 2-3 start, the Steelers have righted their ship and have won four consecutive games. But they aren't the same offense without Roethlisberger. Also, strong safety Troy Polamalu (calf) is expected to miss his sixth straight game. The only time you've seen him on TV lately, he's dressed in white tails and playing a piano in a shampoo commercial.
Without their top players on each side of the ball, the Steelers are at a huge disadvantage. Unless Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can come up with a creative gameplan to stifle a Ravens' offense that scored a record 55 points against Oakland, Pittsburgh will struggle.