Sunday afternoon, the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles will play the once-beaten Pittsburgh Steelers in the most significant game for each team to this point.
Typically, in the spirit of "it ain't great unless there's some hate," the game is being framed by the local news media as a battle for Pennsylvania. We're always looking to cast these games as wars and battles. But I spent two days driving from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and didn't find any evidence of animosity. There were no Eagles hanging in effigy, no posters deriding Pittsburghers as morons.
From Philly to Pittsburgh, through the dozens of towns in between, the peculiar relationship between the Eagles and the Steelers is a model for the respectful coexistence of rivals.
I'm not sure the two cities are all that aware of each other. "Growing up in Camden, Pittsburgh seemed like it was a million miles away," Jamaal Green, an Eagles defensive end, said after practice Wednesday. "I would never go there, never thought about going there, all my family members was all Eagles fans. A lot of people that grow up in Camden don't go too much farther than central Philly. As far as Pittsburgh and all that, it's like a whole different world. That's like me going to Florida or California somewhere."
Of course, all this can change if the stakes get higher.
Three years ago, the Eagles and Steelers were a game away from meeting in the Super Bowl. In the conference championship games, Pittsburgh lost at home to New England and the Eagles lost at St. Louis.
Duce Staley, the Steelers' new running back, winced at the mention of those playoffs. A meeting would have made the Steelers and the Eagles bitter rivals, he said.
"If we would have both made the Super Bowl in '02, this game would have meant a little bit more," Staley said. "It means a lot because of the records and we just beat New England. They're undefeated -- so it means a lot because of that, but it's not a rivalry."
Staley spent seven seasons with the Eagles, and there was no question where the epicenter of their season was. "We knew that Dallas was our rival," he said. "There's so much hatred between Philly and Dallas because of all the championships."
Staley said that if the Steelers and the Eagles played more frequently, it could be a big rivalry.
"But you got to have some history behind it, you got to play more," he said. "There's no history behind this rivalry. It needs a little more sauce."
In fact, there is an abundance of history and sauce. It's just not hot sauce.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia joined the NFL in 1933 and met for the first time that season on Nov. 19. A decade later, the NFL was ordered to reduce travel as part of the war effort. Schedules were revised and rosters cut. When the Cleveland Rams were forced to shut down, the league needed to cut another team to get to eight, so the Steelers and the Eagles combined and became known for a season as the Steagles. They divided home games, split the coaching duties between the Steelers' Walt Kiesling and the Eagles' Greasy Neale and finished 5-4-1.
The Eagles won the NFL championship in 1948 and defeated the Steelers in the Eastern Division playoff, 21-0 -- their first and only postseason meeting.
"Certain teams, you have different relationships with," Dan Rooney, the Steelers' chairman, said Thursday during lunch at the team's training complex. "Back in the `70s, we didn't get along with the Raiders at all. But we got along with Houston; we respected them, they respected us. Our relationship with the Eagles was pretty much that way. It was always pretty good."