The Ravens' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the NFL's signature assets, but nothing is ever thus, and I think it's losing a bit of steam.
I'm not saying that because the teams will play a rare daylight contest Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium instead of beating themselves up in prime time, like they usually do. That's not a symbolic demotion, just a function of a startlingly bad 2015 season from the 4-10 Ravens. Remember, the game was set for NBC's Sunday Night Football until it was understandably flexed out of that premier slot two weeks ago.
(By the way, isn't it interesting how things change? Ordinarily, Baltimore fans would be complaining that the flex-out indicated a lack of national respect for the Ravens. With the Ravens going so poorly, though, I suspect most fans are thrilled the game isn't on primetime. Who wants the rest of the football nation to see the Terrible Towel invasion of Baltimore that is likely to occur?)
Long before Sunday's game was removed from primetime, though, I sensed an ever-so-slight diminution of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry.
The series has lost significant star power in recent years with the retirements of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and others who made it such a marquee event. And let's face it, the stakes aren't quite as high now that the Cincinnati Bengals have equaled, if not surpassed, the Ravens and Steelers in the AFC North.
The Ravens and Steelers dominated the division for what seemed like forever, winning it nine of 11 times between 2002 and 2012 – years when every game between them felt like a crusade. But now, in 2015, the talented Bengals are on the verge of locking up their second division title in three years. They're 5-1 against Baltimore since December 2012.
Baltimore-Pittsburgh still provides some of the roughest NFL games, which is what makes them so attractive to the networks, but they lose a bit of luster when the subtitle is "an all-out battle for second place."
Did you see what quarterback Joe Flacco said last week when Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations, asked him to identify which team he most loves to beat?
"Probably Cincinnati," Flacco said. "They've had our number some, and I don't like losing to them. Of course, the best place to win on the road is Pittsburgh. It's wild over there."
There you have it: In a close election, Cincinnati, not Pittsburgh, is at the very top of Flacco's list. And along those lines, I think the New England Patriots have replaced the Steelers as Public Enemy No. 1 among fans in Ravenstown.
I'm basing that strictly on what I read, hear and sense rather than hard data, but it sure seems Tom Brady and Bill Belichick now send blood-pressure readings soaring the highest around here.
Maybe it's a product of all those January playoff battles in Gillette Stadium. Maybe it's a product of the Deflategate and Spygate controversies that, rightly or not, have some fans doubting whether the playing field is level when you take on New England.
I think fans here would figuratively shake hands with anyone, even Ben Roethlisberger, before they shake hands with Brady and the Belichicks. Shoot, after so many battles with Pittsburgh, I sense a grudging respect for Big Ben, who plays with his chin out and, dare I say, would have fit as a Baltimore signal-caller if that's how things had worked out.
No one feels that way about Brady and the Patriots.
Don't get me wrong: Baltimore-Pittsburgh is still an electric event, full of loathing and guaranteed to pump up the intensity of coaches, players and fans on both sides, regardless of the circumstances. I barely made it through TSA security before a recent flight because the officer checking driver's licenses was a Steeler fan, recognized me and started talking trash.
The Ravens have nothing left to play for in this dismal season, but if they were to score the long-odds upset Sunday and complete a sweep of Pittsburgh in 2015, it would provide a small measure of solace.
Still, let's face it, when you find yourself thinking fondly about how things used to be, something has changed.