Re­vival meet­ing in North

Ravens, Steel­ers do­ing what they can to re­gain pres­tige for di­vi­sion

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Ed­ward Lee

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 past 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, the Cincin­nati Ben­gals and the Cleve­land Browns. (They also play Sun­day.)

Even the records of the top two teams are some­what sus­pect. The Ravens have de­feated Cincin­nati and Cleve­land and were crushed, 44-7, by the Jack­sonville

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, all right 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,’’ Flacco added. “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.”

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 drew14.8 mil­lion view­ers, the largest au­di­ence for any game aired on the NFL Net­work.

Ravens 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 SaintsAt­lanta Fal­cons.

“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.”

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