The great sports rivalries give you all the passion of a street fight without that messy business of chains, knives and police interrogations afterward.

All these emotions come bubbling to the surface: rage, pride, joy, bitterness, etc.

And there's no better rivalry anywhere than the Ravens vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Usually, it feels like the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the Corleones vs. the Tattaglias and Ali vs. Frazier all rolled into one.

Except ... somehow Sunday's game between the two at M&T Bank Stadium feels different this time around.

Part of that has to do with the Ravens' 9-2 record and their three-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC North.

Let's face it, you don't get the usual Armageddon-like buildup if one team can lose and simply shrug and say: "OK, no worries. We're still good. Where we going for beers?"

The other part has to do with how banged up the 6-5 Steelers are, especially at quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger is nursing shoulder and rib injuries.

There are conflicting reports out of Pittsburgh about whether the big guy would suit up this weekend.

In the span of two hours, one report said he would probably play, another said he was 50-50 and another said he was a definite scratch. So that was helpful.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was even more illuminating. In his conference call with the Baltimore media, he said of Big Ben: "He threw a little bit on Monday. He's scheduled to throw in some capacity today. We'll see where the week will take us."

What's amazing to me is that just two weeks ago, Roethlisberger's rib injury was being talked about as life-threatening.

The big guy was even quoted as being concerned about his top rib possibly puncturing his aorta if he was hit in the right place.

And now he might be OK to play?

What kind of wonder drugs are the Steelers giving this guy? He makes Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis look like they were kicking back by the pool during their rehab assignments.

But when asked yesterday about Big Ben's injuries being "life-threatening," Tomlin said: "I never viewed it as such. I know there was talk about that. But I wasn't involved in that discussion."

In any event, it was business as usual for the Ravens as they got ready to face the team they beat 13-10 two weeks ago at Heinz Field.

I know this'll shock you, but the Ravens refuse to acknowledge -- at least publicly -- that this will be anything but the usual saloon brawl against their arch-rivals.

"Put records aside," Ray Rice said. "Put everything aside. They're still the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every year, the rivalry never changes. They are who they are."

Except ... they're sort of not who they usually are. At least not right now.

Not if Roethlisberger can't go and they start third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, who is the equivalent of 72 years old in NFL years.

Not if the Steelers are desperate enough at wide receiver to sign Plaxico Burress, whom the New York Jets cut loose after last season and who told USA Today he was good for two or three touchdowns "coming off the couch."

Fine. But how will he do coming off the bench?

But the Ravens said they're not concerned with any of that. And none of the players I spoke to said they felt a different vibe about this Steelers game, even with that comfortable three-game lead in the division.

"No, it may seem like that," Joe Flacco said. "But we're not in any more of a comfortable position. The more and more games we win, the more and more important all these games become. Just because we've positioned ourselves well, but we haven't decided anything yet.

"We're trying to become one of the top teams in the AFC," he continued. "And in order to do that, we have to win every week. And we understand that. And there's a big emphasis on continuing to win. It may seem like a loss may not kill us, but you never know. In this league, anything can happen."

"This team's a (ticked)-off 9-2," Rice said. "We feel we can get so much better. I've been around five years and this year just feels totally different. We're 9-2 and nobody's satisfied."

The way things are shaping up, there's a good chance they'll be 10-2 by Sunday evening.

Sure, it's a big game. Sure, it's the Steelers, who always give them a fight.

But it sure feels as if the Ravens are catching them at the right time.