For the second time in three seasons and the third time in a decade, they will meet in the playoffs -- their eighth game in the past three seasons alone. And it will be in Pittsburgh, where January football is about as uninviting as it gets for an opposing team. And where the Ravens have never won in the postseason.
Somehow, both teams figured it would come down to this: beat the other, and advance to the AFC Championship Game. Any other scenario almost would have been incomplete for two rivals who finished the season with 12-4 records, and whose two previous games ended in a combined score of 27-27.
"The Jets and Patriots are great teams, but they're just getting started," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, referring to the other AFC divisional matchup. "This has been going on for years. We play them two, sometimes three times a year, and every one comes down to the end. I'm sure we'll see them again in the playoffs."
He was right.
If history is any indicator, Saturday's game will be close, low-scoring and violently physical. The Steelers' 23-14 victory over Baltimore in the AFC title game two years ago featured a half-dozen "Oh, wow" hits and is regarded by Pittsburgh players as the gold standard for taking aggressive hitting a step higher than that seen during the regular season.
That AFC title game two years ago is the only one of the seven matchups since 2008 not decided by three or four points. The winning margin during each of the four regular-season games since 2009 has been three points, and the average score between them since Mike Tomlin became Steelers coach in 2007 is 18-17, Steelers.
Back-and-forth verbal repartees once were common between the two. The Ravens once referred to Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress as Plexiglas, and they supposedly put a bounty on Ward for his succession of borderline hits. But the chattering has become more respectful and less personal the past two seasons, partly because former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan left to coach the Jets.
On Monday, while Ryan was emphasizing that the Jets-Patriots rivalry "is about Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan," Tomlin wasn't about to drop his own name while heaping praise on the Ravens. Tomlin said nothing remotely controversial, and his players, who had the day off after practicing Sunday, likely will follow a similar path when they return Tuesday.
"We're familiar with them, they're familiar with us," Tomlin said. "Not much has changed, really, since the last time we played them."
Still, having to play Baltimore again probably wasn't on the Steelers' wish list; of their three possible divisional round opponents -- the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore -- the Ravens likely were their last choice. The Ravens are 7-3 on the road in the playoffs, with quarterback Joe Flacco winning four times, and they have won in Pittsburgh twice since 2006 in the regular season.
"We can't overreact because it's the playoffs, we can't get all tight," Ward said. "We've just got to turn up the intensity because, like I've said, each play gets magnified -- offensively, defensively, special teams. I definitely think we'll be ready to play by the end of the week."
Road teams are 6-4 in the AFC divisional playoffs over the past five seasons, leading to the theory that a team that played the weekend before can have the advantage on one that was resting the previous weekend. The Steelers felt that playing and winning at Cincinnati the previous week gave them a decided advantage when they upset the heavily favored Colts in 2005. And road teams were 3-1 this past weekend.
"I wouldn't read too much into it," Tomlin said. "Those road teams that won were very good teams. I think everyone understands that and I don't think anyone's particularly shocked by those things."
Harbaugh said, "There's definitely an advantage to having time off from a rest perspective. There is probably an advantage to playing from a being sharp perspective. I'm confident we can get our guys rested, recovered and ready to go on Saturday."
As usual, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (right Achilles' tendon) will be limited in practice early in the week. But he expects to play against a team that he has constantly tormented. Not only did Polamalu play a big role in the Steelers' victory last month by forcing Flacco's late fumble, his interception return touchdown settled the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago.
"I do feel better now than I have the last few weeks," Polamalu said. "The thing that you don't want, at this point, is any setbacks. Then, you're pretty much done."
Like one of these teams will be by Saturday night.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press