As an entertainment vehicle, the rivalry between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers has lost a lot of big-name star power in recent years. Many of the players who helped make it such a feisty, nasty, impossible-not-to-watch blockbuster have moved on.
Ray Lewis and Hines Ward are now analyzing games on TV, not playing in them. Ed Reed is also doing some broadcasting and tweeting April Fool's jokes. Last week, Troy Polamalu announced his retirement, becoming the latest big name to walk away.
In the entertainment world, the departure of so many icons usually means a show's best days are over. (I'm thinking "The Office" after Steve Carrell left.) But the Ravens-Steelers rivalry remains one of the NFL's most prominent.
In 2014, both regular-season games between them were given prime-time TV slots. Their January playoff date, won by the Ravens, was a Saturday night affair, meaning they played under the lights before a national audience three times in five months.
When the 2015 schedule is released later this month, it will be a major surprise if both games between the Ravens and Steelers aren't slotted for national viewing.
What keeps the rivalry going without those big names? Here are my thoughts:
Hey, first things first. A few decades ago, the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins had the NFL's best rivalry. Both were playoff contenders, every game between them a drama. But they stopped winning. The Cowboys have two playoff wins since 1996. The Redskins have three winning seasons this century and are almost in the headlines more for the ongoing controversy over their name. Their rivalry has fizzled. Their games are no longer must-see TV. The Cowboys would rather beat the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Ravens and Steelers have done a better job of maintaining quality control. Since 2000, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls and made 10 playoff appearances, and the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and made nine payoff appearances .
As long as they keep winning and stay relevant, their rivalry will remain a star attraction.
2) The head coaches
Let's face it, the rest of the football world fell in love with Baltimore-Pittsburgh because it was a throwback. In an age of increasingly sophisticated passing attacks and high-scoring shootouts, the Ravens and Steelers tried to take each other's heads off.
They still do.
It may be true that many of the players who forged that hard-knocking image are gone, and it's also true that quarterbacks and offenses now dominate the rivalry, but the head coaches, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, still demand that their teams play tough, physical football.
"It's who we are," Harbaugh said recently while discussing the importance of the running game.
The Steelers feel the same way.
Maybe the rest of the football world doesn't feel a special tingle, mixed with dread, when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lines up against Baltimore, but Baltimore sure does. Ward and Polamalu are gone, but the Steelers' quarterback is still in uniform, still on top of his game, and in my mind, still Baltimore's No. 1 football villain.
Yes, the Ravens have gotten the best of him often enough, most recently in January, to temper some of the passion. New England's Tom Brady and/or Bill Belichick probably have replaced him in as the villain in some eyes. Oh ye of short memory. Roethlisberger has broken hearts around here for more than a decade.
When he's retired, I will remember him as the football version of a killer in a slasher movie, limping across a frozen, windswept field in late December, blood coming out of his nose, leading his offense toward a potential game-winning touchdown while scaring Baltimore witless.
Get you riled up? It should. And he just signed a big contract extension, so he'll be around.
The Ravens' linebacker is also still around and definitely Football Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh. Here's a true story: Leaving the team hotel before the January playoff game, I wound up on an elevator with Suggs. Two fans in head-to-toe Steeler garb got on. They looked at Suggs. One started trembling and pulled out his camera for a quick shot. Suggs obliged. "Who ya'll rooting for?" he asked lightheartedly. That's two friends he made in Pittsburgh. There aren't many.
5) A division rivalry
The Ravens and Steelers both reside in the AFC North and have combined to win it 10 times in the 13 years since the NFL went to its current divisional alignment. So they want the same thing. And they're always in each other's way. If that isn't a recipe for keeping the blood boiling, what is?