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For about the first dozen years of the new millennium, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry was presented as everything right about the National Football League.

Now, in 2018, the league would prefer you forget those games ever happened.

Like pre-integration baseball, the NBA before a 3-point line or an NHL that didn’t let the Russians play.

Wait? Those days existed? SHHH! Don’t tell anyone.

It’s true. There once was a time where the rivalry between these two AFC North teams was positioned as one of the bright spots. Their two-to-three games per year were perpetually highlighted on the NFL calendar, placed on prime time as often as possible and glorified in “NFL Films” pieces.

The imagery wasn’t about quarterbacks standing in clean uniforms within their pristine pockets, throwing darts around the field without fear of retribution.

Actually, the images the networks preferred to show when creating an aura about these games included Ben Roethlisberger getting a busted nose and Joe Flacco being blindsided by Troy Polamalu.

That’s on top of Ryan Clark pounding Willis McGahee, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs treating Roethlisberger like a pinata, Ray Lewis punishing Rashard Mendenhall, Hines Ward’s crackback on Ray Lewis from 2010 and Lewis returning the favor in 2011.

Oh, sorry. Is this the part where I’m supposed to feel guilty about having loved those plays? Is this the part where the “woke” portion of football fans on Twitter are going to shame me for admitting I enjoy that element of football and want to see it remain in the game?

It’s OK. Banish me and my “neanderthal” kind back to our caves. We’ll just replay those games on our DVD players instead of watching the 2018, watered-down, live version of Steelers-Ravens on Sunday night.

"Left-wing" football: We may know the outcome of the old archives. But the product will still be better on tape than the live “left-wing” version you’ll be watching Sunday night.

Sorry, Jason Witten. You had no idea what you were getting into when you turned that phrase Monday night. But it was just so precious that I had to borrow it.

“It’s going to be electrifying. I can’t wait,” Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “This will be an old, classic Steelers-Ravens bond. I hope everyone gets their popcorn ready for this one.”

I would do that, Marcus. But I’m afraid once the popcorn pops, Pete Morelli will flag me 15 yards for roughing the kernels.

I want to believe Gilbert. Badly.

However, given the NFL’s unrelenting desire to kill the physical fabric of its game through a series of overly protective rules enhancements, I fear the league will never allow its former cornerstone rivalry to return to what it once was.

Getting worse: This is nothing new. It’s just getting worse.

Fans may be surprised to see the numbers, but I checked them out at NFLPenalties.com. Look at the penalties used to deter excessive physicality — unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, lowering the head, horse collar, crackback and blindside blocks.

Those penalties are being called at nearly identical rates in 2018 as they were in 2017. It’s the widened interpretation of what constitutes roughing the passer, which is further diluting the ability to play the hard-hitting defense that made this rivalry epic.

We’re on pace to see 80 more roughing-the-passer penalties. That’s a sizable jump from one year to the next for one NFL category. There were 110 roughing-the-passer infractions last year (including three declined). At the current rate in 2018, the NFL will pass that total around Week 10.

“We have to run up to the quarterback, pick him up and gently put him down on a Tempur-Pedic mattress,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt told me on WDVE Tuesday.

Excellent product placement, Steph.

Offense rules: With the threat of typically vicious Pittsburgh-Baltimore defense lifted, the two teams played to a 39-38 shootout last year during a Steelers win at Heinz Field. It was 31-27 there two years ago.

So much for 13-9, 13-10, 17-14, 23-14 kind of games that helped define this rivalry in 2008 and 2010. Even when the score got up to 31-24 in the 2010 playoffs, most of the points were scored by — or set up by — the defenses.

I asked Steelers veteran defensive end Cam Heyward if he thinks the Steelers-Ravens rivalry could ever return to those days in the new “safety conscious” NFL.

“Steelers-Ravens is why we have safety now,” he laughed.

Sigh.

I’ll just be over here in the corner watching Ward’s knockout of Ed Reed with a tear rolling down my cheek.

 

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