In recent weeks, I heard a few whispers about Sunday night's Ravens-Steelers game possibly getting flexed out of its prime-time slot in favor of another game. That would have been quite a slap in the face.
I don't know how valid those rumors were – maybe not at all. Regardless, NBC kept the game for "Sunday Night Football." I'm guessing the network won't be sorry. Millions of fans around the country will happily settle in after dinner Sunday night to watch these playoff contenders collide with their usual ferocity.
Prediction: Big ratings.
The Ravens and Steelers have played a prime-time game in every season since 2007. This year, both ends of their home-and-home rivalry are taking place under the lights.
Why do the networks continually feature them? Baltimore-Pittsburgh is a no-brainer for them, a familiar and popular brand in the NFL's broad array of rivalries. It faithfully delivers high football entertainment. Six of the last eight nationally-televised games between the teams were decided by three points or less.
The brand has conjured vivid images for years. To many fans, Baltimore-Pittsburgh means … demolition derby … dominant defenses ... bruising hits … big-boy football … Ray Lewis and James Harrison leveling ball carriers … Ed Reed and Hines Ward screeching and grinning …
In the press box before one game a few years ago, a national reporter told me, "This is the varsity, man!"
Though some of its biggest names are no longer playing, the rivalry still generates electric passions in both locker rooms. Did you hear Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil's comments the other day? He's just in his second season with the Ravens after seven years in Denver, where the Broncos play plenty of big games, but he's already a full-fledged convert to the thrill of Baltimore-Pittsburgh.
"I think it's the best rivalry in football. It's exciting, especially on a national stage," Dumervil said. "I couldn't ask for a better situation, to be in a rivalry like this."
There's no doubt Heinz Field will produce a charged-up environment Sunday night. There's also no doubt the game will play to type in certain respects.
"It's always a blood bath. The intensity is very high," Dumervil said.
But while there will be plenty of hitting, let's face it, Ravens-Steelers has morphed into something else. People tuning in to see a low-scoring helmet-buster might be surprised.
Pittsburgh's defense is under fire from all corners. Everyone from Ray Lewis to Bill Cowher has denigrated it for lacking toughness. The unit still ranks in the top half of the league (16th), but only the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars have allowed more "explosive" passing plays of 20 or more yards this season. The Steelers have allowed 33 such plays in eight games, which, according to my abacus, is a staggering average of more than four per game.
Ordinarily, that would lead one to presume the Ravens have an edge. But only the Steelers and Jaguars have allowed more explosive passing plays than Baltimore. The Ravens defense, like Pittsburgh, also is ranked in the top half of the league (13th), but it has allowed 31 explosive passing plays in eight games.
Translation: This game probably won't be 9-6.
The Steelers are ranked third in the league in total offense. The Ravens are ninth. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns last week. The Ravens' Joe Flacco is on pace to throw 28 touchdowns, his career high, and surpass 4,000 passing yards in a season for the first time.
Big passing plays pretty much disappeared from the Ravens offense a year ago, but this year, only a handful of quarterbacks have more completions of 20 or more yards than Flacco.
Some viewers tuning in to watch a typical Baltimore-Pittsburgh slugfest might be surprised to see a shootout develop Sunday night.
Of course, given how profoundly things change from week to week in the NFL these days, I'm guessing the under-fire defenses will perform better than expected. That's not a fact-based hunch, just the way things seem to go. Last week in Cincinnati, the Bengals were coming off several awful performances that had the Ravens licking their chops, but the Bengals, in winning, played as if those earlier games never occurred.
So Sunday night's reprise of the rivalry probably will adhere to the typical script in some respects, and depart from it in others. The evidence strongly suggests there'll be a bunch of big plays and plenty of points, but also, like always, big hits and a great finish. The football nation expects no less.