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No Big Ben or Flacco: New faces prepare for Steelers-Ravens rivalry

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With the loss of stars who have defined the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, there are questions whether this is still the NFL’s fiercest rivalry. With the early-season struggles of both teams, there is uncertainty whether Ravens-Steelers remains the league’s best feud.

What this AFC North grudge match continues to stand for, at least in the eyes of coach John Harbaugh, is a rite of passage.

“You’re not a Raven until you beat the Steelers,” Harbaugh told his players at Wednesday’s team meeting.

There are 30 players on the Ravens' current 53-man roster who carry Harbaugh’s badge of honor. Sunday's 51st meeting between the Ravens and Steelers (1 p.m. ET, CBS) begins a new chapter in this storied rivalry that has featured big hits, high stakes stakes and some of the biggest names in the game over the years.

Ben Roethlisberger won’t be shrugging off defenders and delivering another punch-in-the-gut, last-second touchdown pass. The Steelers quarterback is out for the season with an elbow injury. Joe Flacco won’t be marching the Ravens down the field for a thrilling comeback win at Heinz Field, either. The former Ravens QB was traded to the Denver Broncos in February. And former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs won’t be coming out of the stadium tunnel wearing a gladiator mask or boasting that he owns Roethlisberger's posterior. Suggs signed with the Arizona Cardinals in March.

This marks the first time in 17 years (since the season finale in 2002) that a Ravens-Steelers game will not include either Roethlisberger, Flacco or Suggs.

So, what makes a great rivalry?

“We hate each other. I know for sure we hate them," veteran Baltimore linebacker Pernell McPhee said. "We respect them as men, but we really hate them. That's just how it is. That's the blood between the teams. It's like God versus the devil."

In the Steelers' team meeting this week, coach Mike Tomlin emphasized how much this rivalry means to both franchises, educating the new players that it's going to be "a bloodbath."

In 2002, Ravens cornerback James Trapp (who went on to become the team chaplain for the Falcons) stomped cleats-first on Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress. A year later, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter ran out to the Ravens' buses after a game to pick a fight with Ray Lewis.

Throughout the past decade, Ravens running back Willis McGahee left the field on a stretcher after a hit by Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark, Roethlisberger had his nose broken by Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and Lewis ended Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall's season by breaking a shoulder.

Roethlisberger said last year that it feels like you've been in five or six car wrecks after playing in this rivalry.

"The competitiveness of the game is always there,” said Pittsburgh wide receiver Ryan Switzer, who grew up a Steelers fan in West Virginia. “It’s usually not one-sided. And there’s usually something on the line when these two teams are playing. It’s for division outright or wild card, whatever the reason is, these teams are usually playing with something on the line."

In 2008, the Steelers knocked off the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. In 2014, Baltimore upset Pittsburgh in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

In 2016, former Stelers receiver Antonio Brown scored with nine seconds remaining by reaching over the goal line in a play nicknamed the "Immaculate Extension." The Steelers won the AFC North with that 31-27 victory and eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention.

Over the past 11 years, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have combined for eight division titles, 14 playoff seasons and two Super Bowl championships.

This year, these two proud franchises are trying to figure out whether they can live up to that standard. Neither the Steelers nor the Ravens is in first place in the AFC North. The Cleveland Browns sit atop the division a quarter of the way into the season.

Pittsburgh (1-3) lost its first three games, and Baltimore (2-2) has lost its last two. The teams the Steelers and Ravens have beaten this year are a combined 0-11-1.

"I still know within the fan bases, there is still a lot of bad blood and there's a lot of pride in both cities," former Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "But I don't think it's the same type of rivalry necessarily with the players on the field. I don't think they've played as much against one another. There hasn't been as many games with as much as at stake in the last couple of years between these two teams. Listen, it's still a great rivalry. In my opinion, it's the best rivalry in the NFL."

This is the first season in which the Ravens and Steelers aren't scheduled to face each other in prime time since 2006. On Sunday, Baltimore is playing its first early game in Pittsburgh since 2013.

The players who will be suiting up, though, believe this is a prime-time matchup.

"It’s a game of pure football when we play them. It always has been," said guard Ramon Foster, who has played for the Steelers since 2009. "It’s a game that your physical talents come up. It’s usually a game that’s decided by one or two mistakes by the other team or it becomes a war of attrition by saying that we’re going to just beat you up today. It’s a game that you want to see. It’s fans that say, ‘I’m coming to the Ravens-Pittsburgh game.' That’s the type of game it is."

There will just be a different feel to this Ravens-Steelers game. Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph are both making their first starts in this rivalry. The once-feared defenses have struggled this season, except for when they've played the Miami Dolphins or Cincinnati Bengals.

But the fire of the feud has lasted despite saying goodbye to the likes of Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu in the past. While the faces have changed, the players feel the heart of this rivalry will always continue to beat on.

"This is still Ravens-Steelers. This is still one of the most exciting rivalries in football," said Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who has played the Steelers 15 times. "When you're a little kid dreaming about playing in the National Football League and you see Ravens-Steelers on TV, you want to be a part of that. While the names might be different, the logos on the side of the helmet are still the same."