Pernell McPhee has played in some of the best rivalries the NFL has to offer.
He started his career in Baltimore in 2011 and played four seasons as a Raven, where he played in some of the most physical games of his career against the Steelers. He then went to Chicago for three seasons where he played in the league’s most historic rivalry game: Bears vs. Packers. He even spent a year in Washington and faced the Cowboys once.
But of all the rivalry games the outside linebacker played in as a professional nothing has left an impact, both emotionally and physically, like when the Ravens play the Steelers.
“I definitely would say the Ravens and the Steelers is the best rivalry game I’ve played in in the NFL,” McPhee said. (It’s) the most physical game. I think what makes it better than the Bears and Green Bay is that they’re not physical — that conference isn’t physical like the AFC North. They haven’t had the history with defensive players like the AFC North.”
The Ravens will play host to their biggest rivals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in their most meaningful game of the season thus far. The Steelers are 6-0 and the only unbeaten team left in the league. And for the first time since 2018, the game will hold significant meaning for both sides.
A year ago, the Ravens beat the Steelers 26-23 in overtime at Heinz Field in Week 5. But at that point, the Steelers had already lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season and were 1-3 entering the game. The Ravens had just been blown out by the Browns and no one saw the start of a 12-game winning streak on the horizon. The game was intense, but the optics were different.
In Week 17 for the second and final matchup, the Ravens had already clinched the AFC’s top spot while the Steelers needed a win — and help around the conference — to make the playoffs. The game was as dreary as the weather, as the Ravens won 28-10 in a snoozer to help knock the Steelers out of playoff contention on a day when their biggest concern was the health of the roster.
This Sunday is expected to have the same intense game as Week 5 did a year ago, only with some familiar faces back in the mix. And, naturally, some new ones too.
“There’s no bigger rivalry in sports, in professional sports, in my opinion, than this matchup,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “As a football fan, I’ve watched it from afar for plenty of years. I’m happy to finally be in it.”
Through the years, the Ravens and Steelers have played one another in playoff games and heated regular season affairs which has left an impression on a few long-time Ravens.
"We respect them as men, but we really hate them," McPhee said last October. “That’s just how it is. That’s the blood between the teams. It’s like God versus the Devil. I don’t know, but it’s just the taste. We respect them as men, but as a team, as an organization, me personally, I don’t really care too much for them.”
The rivalry has evolved, naturally, even as some of the same faces have stayed put and some, like McPhee, have left and come back.
Roethlisberger has been with the Steelers since 2004. Head coaches Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh are about to face off for a league-record 25th straight time. Even quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has started against the Steelers just once in his career, is on the roster for his third year of Ravens-Steelers matchups.
But has the rivalry fundamentally hanged in the last decade?
“Maybe — just because of the hits and the way people have played the game has kind of changed — just due to the rules and all of that,” said defensive back Jimmy Smith, who has been in Baltimore since 2011. “But this is still the most physical game we play on both sides of the ball every year — no matter what the records say. But I don’t think it’s lost any type of passion towards this game. I think it’s still the No. 1 circled, red-dot game for us.”
Even if it has changed, Jackson said he thinks it goes deeper than just the Ravens vs. the Steelers on name recognition and said it’s a rivalry between the two cities as well. He added he can’t imagine what it would be like to be in the stands — when appropriate to do so — to watch the rivalry unfold.
Sunday’s matchup won’t have many fans in the stands, but it should have the same tenacity as previous matchups did, with the same lasting league implications. And on Monday, players on both teams will wake up a little more sore than they normally do.
For the Ravens and Steelers, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is my ninth year here,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “You get excited for the rookies that haven’t played in this game, the first-year players that haven’t played in this game and free agents that haven’t played in this game. Because they’ve heard about it. They’ve read about it. They’ve watched it. But they haven’t played in it yet. And after they play it, that’s when you go to them and say, ‘See what I was talking about?’”