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Steelers vs. Ravens is everything an NFL rivalry should be

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It’s got all of the hate, but with an underlying respect.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Ravens vs. Steelers is one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL. But beneath the hard hits and the hate lies a mutual respect.

It’s a stark difference from the toxicity we saw when the Steelers faced the Bengals last week. That was the worst kind of football, marred with serious injuries and dirty hits.

And unlike the Steelers’ biannual conflict with the Bengals, their rivalry with the Ravens is newer — and more competitive.

It was born in the Ravens’ second game of their inaugural season back in 1996. The Steelers handed them a 31-17 loss, Baltimore’s first as a franchise. The Ravens turned right around and beat the Steelers — coincidentally — 31-17 later that season. Since that time, the Steelers have held a slight edge, with a 26-21 record over Baltimore. But the two teams are dead even over their last 22 meetings.

Either the Ravens or the Steelers have been the division champs in 11 of the 15 seasons since the AFC North took shape. And whichever team didn’t win the division has landed in the postseason with a wild card bid in seven of those seasons.

And there’s a little extra intrigue this week. The Ravens, currently hanging on to the No. 6 spot in the AFC, are fighting to keep their postseason hopes alive. The Steelers can clinch the AFC North with a win on Sunday.

The Ravens and Steelers play a similar style of physical, hard-hitting football. Both sides embrace that.

“It’s a great rivalry,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We love playing in it. It’s the most physical game we play every single year. It’s always tough coming out of the game in that you’re going to have a lot of bumps and bruises for sure. We have respect for them.”

That respect defines the rivalry

When these two teams face off, guys will come after each other with all they’ve got on the field for 60 minutes. And they’ll shake hands afterward.

"You're going to get hit really hard or you're going to hit somebody really hard, but you're going to help them up and say, 'Man, nice job,’” longtime Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, via ESPN’s Jamison Henley.

It’s the same way that Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs can call Roethlisberger a “rat bastard” — and Roethlisberger takes no offense because no offense was intended.

"This game is crazy. It’s a special game. I am still here. Suggs is still over there. We’ve got a lot of respect for each other in this rivalry,” Roethlisberger said earlier this season.

It’s hard not to contrast it to the ugliness we’ve seen from the Steelers and Bengals.

"In that one [with the Bengals], it feels like almost, just, you're out there to hit people, and we don't feel the same respect from them that Baltimore and we have," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not really sure why."

But that’s not the case with the Ravens, even though the animosity between these teams is enduring.

But the hate is real

Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward explained to Sports Illlustrated last year how seriously the team takes its rivalry with the Ravens.

Pure hatred. We hated everything, from the color purple. During Ravens week no one could wear purple in the building. I remember they made the office lady go home because she had a purple blouse on. She had to go change that. If a player had some purple on your Jordans or on your outfit, somehow, it ended up in the trash can. Our motto around the building, excuse my language, was, blank purple. I would just hit anything that had purple on it. I didn’t care if it was a defensive lineman, linebacker, cornerback or safety. Anything.

The rivalry doesn’t span much time because the Ravens have only been around since 1996, but it has plenty of classic moments that fuel the bad blood between the Ravens and Steelers, including:

“He got my nose, and I remember everyone saying it wasn’t that bad,” Roethlisberger said. “And then afterward, I looked, and it was completely plastered to my face. Just another Raven battle wound, I guess.”

But when the game is over, the admiration these teams have for each other is intact.

"At the end of it, you're going to shake hands and give the other guy a hug and say that was a lot of fun and can't wait to do it next year,” Roethlisberger said. “It's a fun rivalry in the sense that there's a lot of respect and there are two good football teams."

And that’s exactly what an NFL rivalry should be.