How We Play Football in the AFC North

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Since the Baltimore Ravens were established in 1996, they have played the Pittsburgh Steelers 44 times, including four times in the playoffs. Over the last 20 years, it has been arguably the NFL’s fiercest rivalry. We got former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and former Ravens safety Ed Reed to discuss the rivalry, and what it means to play football in the AFC North.


Hines Ward
My man, Ed Reed. First things first: I got one question for you. I know you’re coaching in Buffalo now … so do you have the Steelers game circled on the Bills’ schedule?

Ed Reed
Haha. Naw, man. I don’t have December 11, 2016, circled on my schedule. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about….

Hines
So you do!

Ed
Yeah, man. You got to. It’ll be different because it’s Bills vs. Steelers, not Ravens vs. Steelers, and I won’t be on the field for it. But I know when we play Pittsburgh, Rex Ryan and I will probably still have that same old feeling.

Hines
But it’ll be different. There won’t be that hate.

Ed
No doubt. Won’t be nothing like that. That RavensSteelers hate was real. Shoot, you know that. You were probably the most hated out of everybody.

Hines
Hahaha. Yes, I was.

Ed
Let me tell y’all what it was like playing against Hines Ward: Hines was like a gnat — like a gnat on a hot day. You’d swat him away, and he’d just keep coming back. He’d have me like, Godddd, where does this gnat keep coming from? Why is he always in my face?

I think he was assigned specifically to block me at all times because I was one of our playmakers.

Hines
Oh, I definitely was. I was always responsible for blocking the safeties.

But you know what it was like to play against Ed Reed:

It was fun. Hard-hitting and intense, but always fun.

I remember when you first came into the league — and into the rivalry — and started establishing yourself. People were talking about how you were gonna go down as one of the greatest safeties to ever play. So I said to myself, O.K., if he’s gonna go down as an all-time great, I’m gonna make sure he always remembers number 86.

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That was always the mentality: Kick somebody’s ass. I think that’s what made the rivalry so special.

Hines Ward

Ed
Well, you made your point.

Hines
We had some dogfights, though, right?

Ed
Oh, man … it was always a dogfight. That’s AFC North football. Old-school slugfests. The kind we grew up watching.

Hines
We knew going into every season that there were three teams that we would have to go through to get to the Super Bowl: New England, Indianapolis and Baltimore. And we had to play the Ravens twice — maybe even a third time in the playoffs. So we circled those games the day the schedule came out.

Ed
Same with us, man. Because we knew whoever won those Ravens-Steelers was probably gonna win the division and have a chance to play for a championship.

Hines
Oh, yeah. We treated SteelersRavens like it was the Super Bowl.

I remember my rookie year, I walked into the facility early on a Monday morning — when it’s usually pretty empty — and the weight room was packed. Everybody was in there lifting. So I went up to one of the veteran guys like, “Damn … why is everybody in the weight room so early?”

He looked around and said, “Oh, ’cause it’s Purple Week.”

That’s what we called it. Purple Week. And we hated purple. If at any time you came into our facility wearing purple, you were asked to go home and change. If you came to practice wearing some purple Jordans, they wouldn’t be at your locker when you came back. Somebody would have thrown them in the trash can.

Ed
Yo, Steelers week was always crazy for us, too. I know you know that Renegade song you guys always play in your stadium to get the fans hyped up.

Hines
Of course: “The jig is up, the news is out”!

Ed
That’s it. It’s actually a really … nice song. I still have it on my iPod.

Well, in Baltimore, we adopted that song as our own. That’s how you knew it was Steelers week in our building. We had that song blasting all week. In the locker room, at practice, in the weight room — everywhere. So come Sunday, when we were playing in Pittsburgh and that song came on, we didn’t get intimidated by the song or by the crowd when it started to get crazy. We were like, Man, this is our song. Let’s go kick these guys’ asses!

Hines
That was always the mentality: Kick somebody’s ass. I think that’s what made the rivalry so special. I don’t know about you, but my motto was, Hit or be hit. That’s what SteelersRavens was all about.

It was always a dogfight. That’s AFC North football. Old-school slugfests.

Ed
No doubt. The rivalry had already been hot for a couple of years when I came into the league, but when I first got into it, it really reminded me of Florida State–Miami. Like you said, there were certain games you knew were gonna be a very intense, like Indy and New England. But Pittsburgh was on a whole ’nother level — the same way Florida State was for the Hurricanes.

Hines
So real quick, I’ve been thinking about that “gnat” comment, and I gotta ask you something: You remember Corey Ivy?

Ed
I remember Corey. He was with us in Baltimore for a few years. I still keep up with him.

Hines
Well, when he came to Pittsburgh for a little bit in 2009, he told me straight up that you guys didn’t like me over there, and he told me that when we played the Ravens you had a bounty to see who could knock the smile off my face.

Is that true?

Ed
What do you think? Yeah that’s true, man. Haha. I mean, there was no “bounty,” but we all wanted to be the one to knock that smile off your face, and we definitely talked about it.

That was probably the most irritating thing about you. That damn smile. I don’t know anybody in the league who didn’t wanna knock that smile off your face.

Hines
[Smiles.]

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Ed
But you know what? You were just out there enjoying the game of football, like a little kid. And I respect that. That’s the way you’re supposed to play. Not a lot of people could play the game with as much intensity as you did and still keep a smile on their face the whole time. I think a lot of kids can learn from that.

Hines
Definitely. No matter how hard I hit someone or how hard I got hit, I always got up with a smile.

There was one play I remember — we were in Pittsburgh, wearing our throwback uniforms, and I went to catch a third-down pass over the middle. And when you played Baltimore, you knew who you were gonna see when you went over the middle.

Ed
Ray—

Hines
Ray Lewis.

So I go over the middle, and Ray nails me. I went down hard. He kind of got me in the back of my head, and I remember lying on the ground, seeing stars, and I could hear a bunch of Ravens players celebrating.

No matter how hard I hit someone or how hard I got hit, I always got up with a smile.

“Yeah, mother******! You got him, Ray! You got him!”

I could still hear them as I tried to get up, like Rocky Balboa pulling himself up off the mat — dizzy, concussed and all kinds of woozy. I tried to play it off so the Ravens guys didn’t see that I was hurt, but Ray got me pretty good. That was it for me that night.

Ed
Hey, Ray was no joke.

Hines
Nope. And he’s another one, like Ed Reed, who will go down as one of the greatest ever.

I think that hit was payback for him, too, because the season before that, we were playing in Baltimore and I went out and hit him in the open field — decleated him on a crackback block. When he got up, he got in my face and grabbed my facemask, so I grabbed his facemask, too, and we just started jawing. I still have the picture.

wardlewis

Ed
And look at you, still smiling.

Hines
Haha. Always!

But that’s what it was like playing against Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and all you guys. Hit or be hit. I mean, I remember the way the hits sounded. You could hear it from the other side of the field, like a firecracker. You always had about four or five of those firecracker hits in a game, and I took pride in being a part of those hits. On any given play, I didn’t know who it was gonna be, but I was gonna hit somebody. Other games just weren’t like that.

Hines was like a gnat — like a gnat on a hot day. You’d swat him away, and he’d just keep coming back.

Ed
For real. Those games were always hard-fought, intense battles. All those years tackling Jerome Bettis — who’s one of the coolest cats I know now — and trying to cover Plaxico Burress in his prime or trading hits with you. There wasn’t anything else like it. You couldn’t play AFC North football against other teams. The Patriots just didn’t play that way. The Colts didn’t play that way. It was just the Ravens and the Steelers, and you always knew what you were gonna get.

Hines
Like in 2010-11 when we met in the playoffs.

Ed
Maaaannnnn….

Hines
What was it, like, our first play of the game or something?

Ed
So listen to this: It’s the playoffs. Win or go home. On top of that, it’s Ravens vs. Steelers. So you know it’s gonna get rowdy. It was a run play. I knew it was gonna be a run play because every time Hines came in motion behind the line like he did on that play, they always ran the ball behind him. I came up on the line of scrimmage outside the tackle.

So the ball gets snapped. Hines blocks me, I jam him back with both hands, and we get tangled. We get to squabbling a little bit, roughing each other up, and he winds up getting me on the ground — after I tried to slam him.

Hines
And then they gave me a penalty!

Ed
Haha. Yes, they did.

Hines
So once we got on the ground, it turned into a dogpile. I had four Ravens on top of me beating me up under the pile, and the ref hits me with the personal foul. Not even offsetting penalties. Out of everybody in the scrum, I was the only one who got flagged.

Ed
That was a “reputational” flag. Haha. From years of those little Hines Ward cheap shots.

Hines
Well, whatever it was, I just got up and smiled and laughed it off. And when I went back to the sidelines after that series, Coach Tomlin pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you just set the tone for the whole game.”

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I don’t know anybody in the league who didn’t wanna knock that smile off your face.

Ed Reed

Ed
That was in the divisional round, and we went up big on you in that game, too. Like 217 or something. I remember because you kept on smiling and saying, “We’re gonna come back and win.”

I was like, “Man, you ain’t gonna win nothing.”

Hines
And what happened?

Ed
Aw, y’all came back in that one. You had a few big comebacks against us. We played in so many big games. It felt like whenever everything was on the line, it was always Ravens vs. Steelers.

But I don’t think anything was like the AFC championship game in — what was it, ’08?

Hines
Yeah, the 2008-09 season.

Ed
Man. For me, that one probably hurt the most. I had been in the league a while at that point, and not knowing how many years I had left … and then to get that close? That one hurt. Then you guys beat the Cardinals down in Tampa and win the Super Bowl….

It felt like whenever everything was on the line, it was always Ravens vs. Steelers.

Hines
But you ended getting your ring a couple of years later.

Ed
Yeah, but at that time, I still hadn’t made it to a Super Bowl, and I felt like that was our best shot and we let it slip away.

I actually went to that game down in Tampa. I usually didn’t attend the Super Bowl, but I knew that I had to go to that one because I felt like we should have been there — that it should have been us playing against the Cardinals and not you guys. So I drive down to Tampa, and I’m sitting in the stands with Steelers fans who are looking at me like, Is that … really? And they’re making their comments about who’s a better safety, me or Troy Polamalu.

Hines
Yeah, I remember Troy had that pick that sealed the AFC championship game for us and sent us to Tampa.

Ed
He did. And I want to talk about Troy in a minute.

But back to that Super Bowl … I went to that game and watched it from the stands. You know, at that point in my career, I was thinking that I might never get there, and I just wanted to experience that feeling.

Hines
Did you stay for the whole game?

Ed
Naw, man. I didn’t. Once it got toward the end, I couldn’t watch anymore. I had gotten what I came for and I left.

But as I was walking down the tunnel out of the stadium, thinking that I was glad that I had come, Santonio Holmes caught the damn game-winning touchdown, and the whole stadium went crazy. The stadium was practically shaking, and I’m standing in the tunnel thinking, What do we have to do to get here and experience this? What’s it gonna take? Because if Pittsburgh can win it, then we can win it.

That’s all I thought about for the four-hour drive down to Miami that night.

That’s what Ravens–Steelers is all about: hate, but also respect.

Hines
I gotta say, when you guys won the Super Bowl in 2012, I hated it. I mean, the Ravens.

Ed
Same for me the two times I watched you guys win it. I mean, you respect it, but you also hate it. But that’s what RavensSteelers is all about: hate, but also respect.

Hines
Exactly. I hated that the Ravens won, but you think about how many great players have played this game and not won a championship. Then I think about you, who I considered a champion regardless just because of how you played the game. And for you to finally get the hardware to back that up, it just put you over the top, in my mind. It solidified you as an all-time great, along with Ray — even though he already had a ring — and the other guys on that defense.

For me, I’m proud to look back at those Ravens teams and say, “I played against those guys.”

Ed
Likewise, man.

Hines
And you mentioned Troy, who I think is also one of the all-time great safeties. He’s got the hardware to back up his greatness as well.

Ed
You know, when Troy came into the league, I was already kind of doing my thing, and there started to be big talk across the league about how important safeties were to franchises. And Troy and Dick LeBeau were a great combination. Troy could make plays from anywhere on the field, and Dick LeBeau, who’s one of the greatest defensive minds to ever coach in this game, used to put him in position to make those plays. He lined him up at D-line, linebacker, corner, safety — it didn’t matter. Troy made plays.

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Ed
But I remember when Troy made his first Pro Bowl. I think it was 2004. He came up to me at the beginning of the week and basically asked if he could hang out with me and pick my brain, just about football stuff. And I said yes. I told him, “Look, man. I’ll give you all the tools. Whatever you need.” So we talked the whole week. We really hit it off, but he took the conversation to another level. I could tell right away he was smart, and I already knew he was a playmaker, so it was pretty clear that he was gonna be around for a long time. So having another safety of his caliber to compare myself to — that made Ravens
Steelers that much more intense, for me.

Hines
There were a lot of things that made the rivalry intense for me, and we’ve talked about a few of them. But one of the biggest things for me was the fans. I mean, I know Steelers fans are crazy, but—

Ed
Man, let me tell you about Steelers fans: They love their football. And not just on Sundays, either. When we flew into Pittsburgh and we wanted to get us some food, we would see fans out around town. They were everywhere. And believe it or not, they showed us some respect. That’s something you rarely see.

Now, come game day, they have no respect for you at all. None. They want you to get whooped. They’ll curse you out. And they’ll go hard at the opposing fans and make it uncomfortable for them, too. My family went up to Pittsburgh for that AFC championship game in 2008, and my dad almost got into a fight with one guy — probably because he said something to my mom.

After the game, my dad was like, “I’ll never go back there.”

But that’s what you want out of your fans. You want that loyalty, and you want opposing players and fans to want to fear coming into your place.

Hines
Yeah, that sounds like Steelers fans to me. That’s what we like. Haha. But Ravens fans are pretty hardcore, too. I remember one of the first times I played in Baltimore. It was my second year in the league, 1999. We were on the bus on our way to the stadium on game day, and I was sitting all the way at the back with my headphones on getting ready to go. I looked out the back window, and there were three men — well, two men and a boy — decked out in Ravens gear. It looked like a grandfather, a father and a son.

And they were all giving us the finger.

Talk about a genuine dislike. Haha. Three generations of Ravens fans, all mean-muggin’ the Steelers’ bus, giving us the finger.

That’s when I knew it was gonna be the type of rivalry it was.

Ed
That’s right. There was no love lost.

usatsi_8326828

Hines
That was a long time ago, but nothing has changed. I haven’t played in a couple of years, and I still get hated on in Baltimore, to this day.

Just a couple of years ago, when I was working for NBC, I had to cover a PatriotsRavens game in Baltimore. I think I was flying in from New York, I’m not sure. But I was at the airport about to catch my flight, and I saw a bunch of people in Ravens jerseys waiting for the same flight. So I was wearing a hat with a hoodie pulled up over it, trying to be low key, and this Ravens fan comes up to me.

“You Hines Ward?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate you!”

I stepped back, like, “Damn, alright …” I mean, it’s not often you get hated on like that. Like, people just walking up to you saying, “I hate you,” to your face.

Ed
Yo, that’s what you get, man. You earned that hate.

Hines
Yeah, yeah … I mean, he said he respected me as a player and all, but he still hated me, and I was like, Damn.

I was too scared to eat the crab cakes.

So then I get on the plane, and a flight attendant who recognized me from Dancing with the Stars comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re a pretty good dancer. But I would never vote for you because you played for the Steelers.” Then she gets on the intercom to give the announcements or whatever, and she says, “By the way, we got Hines Ward flying with us today.” I’m sitting in first class, she points me out, and the whole plane starts booing me. So I sink into my seat with my hat pulled down over my eyes, getting booed by a plane full of people.

It was like one of those old Southwest Airlines commercials … “Wanna get away?”

Ed
Hahahaha. Ruthless.

Hines
It was crazy, man. And we weren’t even in Baltimore yet! We were still on the tarmac in New York. When we got to Baltimore, I got in a cab and got hated on by the driver. Even the concierge at the hotel was like, “Thank you for staying with us, Mr. Ward … and by the way, I hated you as a player.”

I was like, C’mon, man!

Ed
Hahaha.

Hines
But the worst was when I got up to my hotel room. I had been traveling all day and I was hungry, and you know Baltimore is known for its crab cakes.

Ed
Yes, sir.

Hines
So I call room service and order some crab cakes. And when the server comes in, she says, “I loved you on Dancing with the Stars, but I couldn’t stand you as a player. I hated you.”

At this point, I had been hated on for a full day, so it didn’t even faze me. I just wanted my damn crab cakes.

So she leaves the room, and I thought about what probably happened downstairs in the kitchen before she came up. She probably told the cook who the crab cakes were for.

     Server: “Those crab cakes are for Hines Ward.”
    Cook: “I hate that guy!”

So I’m sitting in my hotel room, alone, staring at these two huge Maryland crab cakes that I really wanna taste because I’m hungry and they look so good … but all I can think is, Do I really wanna eat these?

Ed
Did you eat ‘em?

Hines
Naw, man. I couldn’t do it. I just pushed them to the side. I was too scared to eat the crab cakes. I just walked to a McDonald’s instead. Haha.

Ed
Hahah. That’s good stuff, man. I’m happy to see the Baltimore faithful are still treating you well.

Hines
Yeah, they still give it to me pretty good. But you know what? It makes me miss it. I mean, I made a name for myself in that SteelersRavens rivalry. Those were games that the whole league stopped to watch — partly because of the way we played the game, but also because of the all-time great players who took the field in that rivalry.

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 23: Safety Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens and teammate linebacker Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens look on before playing the Jacksonville Jaguars during the preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Ravens won 48-17. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

I’m proud to look back at those Ravens teams and say, 'I played against those guys.'

Hines Ward

Ed
I think the rivalry was really special to me because it made me a better player. It made us all better players. I mean, when you play this game, you wanna play against the best, and that’s what we had every time we stepped on the field against each other. We were taking the field against future Hall of Famers. And the way we prepared — we pushed ourselves to the limit when we prepared for the Steelers. The way we studied, the way we practiced. And eventually, especially toward the end of my career, we looked at it like, If we can prepare like that for the Steelers, we can prepare like that for everybody. And that’s what we did. That’s how we took it to the next level as a team and finally got over the hump and won a Super Bowl.

Hines
So this is supposed to be How We Play Football in the AFC North, right?

Ed
Yeah.

Hines
So what about the other two teams in the division?

Ed
What about ’em? Haha.

Look, man. The Ravens and the Steelers are what AFC North football is all about. Cincinnati was a team you didn’t wanna sleep on — and yeah, sometimes we slept on them. They always had great talent, with guys like Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and all those guys. But to this day, they’re still the Bengals. They can’t get over the playoff hump. They haven’t really separated themselves from what they’ve been. And until they do that, they’re still the same old Bengals.

If Rocky and Apollo Creed can become good friends, then so can Ed Reed and Hines Ward. Right?

Hines
I remember when Houshmandzadeh wiped his shoes with the Terrible Towel. We didn’t like that too much. But even then, there was never that hate. It was never a true rivalry. I think the Bengals are coming on strong now, with all the Vontaze Burfict stuff and fighting the Steelers at the top of the division. But it’s nowhere near what SteelersRavens was.

Ed
Naw. Not even close.

Hines
And Cleveland … I don’t think anybody really took Cleveland seriously. I think Pittsburgh and Cleveland hated each other because the cities are so similar, but when we beat the Browns, it was just another game for us. When the Browns beat us the couple of times they did, it was like their Super Bowl.

Ed
It’s just like the Bengals, man. The Browns are the same Browns they’ve always been. And until they show us that they’re something different, that’s who they are.

Hines
Yeah. The hate — but also the respect — definitely made SteelersRavens special. I think one of the best compliments I ever got came from Brian Billick. Somebody asked him about me, and he said, “I hate that s.o.b. But I’d love to have him on my team.”

Ed
Yeah, that’s what it was. You hated playing against them, but you’d play with them any day.

Hines
Yeah, that about sums it up. And hopefully the rivalry can get back to what it was, because it’s fallen off a bit.

Ed
No doubt.

Hines
Like I said, it was an honor to play against you and the rest of the guys on those Ravens teams. We had some dogfights. But you know what? That’s all in the past now. And if Rocky and Apollo Creed can become good friends, then so can Ed Reed and Hines Ward. Right?

Ed
Hey, I like that. And I accept. There’s no bad blood, man. None at all.

… But you’re still a gnat.

Hines
[Smiles.]

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