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Ravens vs. Steelers isn’t as bitter as it used to be, but veterans know ‘it’s going to be a brawl’

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Ravens vs. Steelers isn’t as bitter as it used to be, but veterans know ‘it’s going to be a brawl’

Don “Wink” Martindale did not waste his breath, trying to pretend the Ravens’ impending trip to Pittsburgh was a routine bit of NFL business.

The team’s defensive coordinator cherishes the crackling atmosphere at Heinz Field so much that he told linebacker Tyus Bowser he’d play there twice a year if he could. Facing the Steelers is an elixir for Martindale’s 58-year-old bones.

“The young ones will find out about it,” he said. “I told them that, ‘If you want to be known in this city, play well against Pittsburgh.’”

Every game looms large for the Ravens as they enter the last six weeks of this season, clinging to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and to their perch atop the AFC North. But seasoned members of the organization say Steelers week remains a thing apart, even if the games are not as bitter as they once were.

Ravens-Steelers remains one of the NFL’s most evocative rivalries, shorthand for brash, punishing football played between perennial contenders. Since the AFC North was created in 2002, the teams have combined to win 15 of 19 division titles. Only once in those 19 seasons — hello, 2013, when both went 8-8 — did neither make the playoffs.

Every year, veteran Ravens are asked what they will tell young teammates about the nature of facing the Steelers. Every year, the answers hit familiar notes.

“I would tell them, ‘It’s going to be a brawl,’” said Bowser, who doubtless heard the same thing when he was a rookie in 2017.

At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if the rivalry has exited its heyday. Imagine a Steeler stalking the Ravens team bus in search of a fight, as Joey Porter did in 2003, when he wanted a piece of Ray Lewis. Imagine a person from either team saying, “The coaches hate each other. The players hate each other,” as Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward did once upon a time.

Such vitriol, bordering on insanity, feels like a relic of Ravens-Steelers past. Most of the players associated with the blood feud have retired. Those who remain, such as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, are in their twilight.

The teams have not played in prime time since the 2018 season. Their last meeting — at an empty Heinz Field on a Wednesday afternoon with 16 Ravens on the reserve/COVID-19 list — stood out as a bizarre representation of the NFL’s pandemic era more than a classic chapter in the rivalry.

With the Cincinnati Bengals on the rise and the Cleveland Browns featuring some of the best front-line talent in the AFC, there’s no guarantee the Ravens and Steelers will maintain their hold on the top of the division. At 5-5-1, with two losses and a tie against the winless Detroit Lions over their last three games, the Steelers could be headed for a reset as they contemplate life after the 39-year-old Roethlisberger. The Ravens opened the week as 3½-point favorites, the first time they have ever been favored in Pittsburgh when facing Roethlisberger at quarterback.

Are we headed for a day when the Steelers will be just another divisional opponent for the Ravens?

Not so fast, say the parties involved.

“It’s just a different swagger this week, a different wave we’re trying to ride,” said Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, who has won six and lost six in his regular-season career against the Steelers.

He recalled how renowned Roethlisberger tormentor Terrell Suggs advised him that “this game will pretty much prove if you’re a Raven or not.”

Fullback Patrick Ricard grinned, recalling how Pittsburgh fans have cussed out his wife in the stands. “The rivalry is real; it’s not just a normal NFL game,” he said. “It’s always the most physical game of the year.”

“If you’re a football fan, you have to know about it,” Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh reporters.

Ravens players sounded downright eager to get back to a packed Heinz Field after their strange, COVID-derailed visit in 2020.

“I know it’s going to be loud, loud as ever,” said quarterback Lamar Jackson, who did not play in Pittsburgh last season. “I know some of our fans are going to be there, too. I know ‘Flock Nation’ is going to be at Heinz Field, but I just can’t wait to hear the noise, hear the atmosphere, smell it, feel it, all of that.”

“Probably the best in the NFL, besides us,” Bowser said when asked about Steelers fans. “But I enjoy playing in Pittsburgh. Coach ‘Wink’ mentioned earlier [that] if he was able to play two games in Pittsburgh, he would, and I definitely believed him. The first time I went out there, in my first year in the league, it was just a crazy energy like no other, and just being out there gives you that different type of energy.”

After six years on the Steelers side of the rivalry, Alejandro Villanueva will return to his former home stadium wearing unfamiliar colors. The soft-spoken left tackle is never one to oversell the emotions of a matchup, and he offered a unique perspective on Ravens-Steelers.

“I come from a country where there’s a true rivalry between two giants, in Real Madrid and Barcelona,” said the son of two Spanish parents. “That’s a rivalry that’s tearing the country apart. This is just two good teams that happen to play each other twice a year, usually in the cold, from working towns.”

He drew laughs when he added, “Unfortunately, I cannot provide any further hype to the rivalry.”

Nonetheless, he noted how unusual it is for two NFL teams to meet so frequently without changing their leaders on the sideline. Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh rank third and fourth, respectively, on the list of longest-tenured NFL coaches. These guys have seen each other more frequently than a lot of us have seen close family members over the last 13 years.

“It’s been an amazing experience for me to watch the two cultures,” Villanueva said. “Obviously, I’ve spent a lot more time with coach Tomlin. He’s like a father figure to me. I miss speaking like him, because I used to listen to him talk all the time, and he’s an amazing speaker, and I would talk to my kids and sound just like coach Tomlin. But now, it’s really interesting to see coach Harbaugh, and how he’s countered the Steelers and that culture to remain a very good team in the AFC and in the AFC North.”

If the rivalry is now defined by decorated middle-aged coaches rather than on-field provocateurs such as Lewis and Ward, perhaps that explains why the temperature has cooled.

“We have a great relationship,” Harbaugh said. “I have a lot of respect for coach Tomlin and for the whole organization over there.”

No one in Pittsburgh is likely to slap that on a bulletin board.

For his part, Tomlin said he has been involved in too many furious, nerve-jangling meetings with the Ravens to take the matchup for granted. The Steelers won both meetings last season, by a combined nine points.

“I just think how the games unfold and the significance of the games over the years make it what it is and has been,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think that that is reduced at all by what’s going on around us. I think it’s about the positioning of the two teams involved, what they’re willing to do in pursuit of victory, the intensity of the games and just how close the games have been over the years.”

Week 13

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Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: Ravens by 4 ½

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U.S. draws down Ukraine embassy presence as war fears mount

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U.S. draws down Ukraine embassy presence as war fears mount

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Sunday ordered the families of all American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to leave the country amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion.

The department told the dependents of staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv that they must leave the country. It also said that non-essential embassy staff could leave Ukraine at government expense.

The move came amid rising tensions about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border that were not eased during talks Friday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.

State Department officials stressed the Kyiv embassy will remain open and that the announcement does not constitute an evacuation. The move had been under consideration for some time and does not reflect an easing of U.S. support for Ukraine, the officials said.

In a statement, the State Department noted recent reports that Russia was planning significant military action against Ukraine. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry has accused NATO countries of escalating tensions around Ukraine with disinformation.

The State Department added: “The security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice. Demonstrations, which have turned violent at times, regularly occur throughout Ukraine, including in Kyiv.”

The department’s travel advisory, which had warned against traveling to Ukraine because of COVID-19 as well as the tensions over Russia, was changed Sunday to carry a stronger warning.

“Do not travel to Ukraine due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19. Exercise increased caution in Ukraine due to crime and civil unrest. Some areas have increased risk,” the department advised.

The travel advisory for Russia was also changed: “Do not travel to Russia due to ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”

The State Department would not say how many Americans it believes are currently in Ukraine. U.S. citizens are not required to register with embassies when they arrive or plan to stay abroad for extended periods.

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Cruise ship heads to Bahamas after U.S. judge orders seizure

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Cruise ship heads to Bahamas after U.S. judge orders seizure

MIAMI — A cruise ship that was supposed to dock in Miami sailed to the Bahamas instead after a U.S. judge granted an order to seize the vessel as part of a lawsuit over unpaid fuel.

Cruise trackers show Crystal Symphony currently docked in the Bahamian island of Bimini.

Passengers were taken by ferry to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.

“We all feel we were abducted by luxurious pirates!” passenger Stephen Heard Fales posted on Facebook.

It was unclear how many passengers were aboard, with one news outlet reporting 300 and another, 700. According to the company website, the vessel can carry up to 848 passengers.

The ship was scheduled to land in Miami on Saturday. But a federal judge in Miami issued an arrest warrant for the ship on Thursday, a maritime practice where a U.S. Marshal goes aboard the vessel and takes charge of it once it enters U.S. waters.

Passengers and entertainers said on social media they were surprised to find out about the legal case. One guest posted a letter on Facebook from Crystal Cruises Management that said the change in itinerary was due to “non-technical operational issues.”

The lawsuit was filed in a Miami federal court by Peninsula Petroleum Far East against the ship under a maritime procedure that allows actions against vessels for unpaid debts. The complaint says Crystal Symphony was chartered or managed by Crystal Cruises and Star Cruises, which are both sued for breach of contract for owing $4.6 million in fuel.

Crystal Cruises announced earlier this week that it was suspending operations through late April.

Besides Crystal Symphony, it has two other ships currently cruising, which end their voyages on Jan. 30 in Aruba and on Feb. 4 in Argentina.

“Suspending operations will provide Crystal’s management team with an opportunity to evaluate the current state of business and examine various options moving forward,” said the company in a statement earlier this week.

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Timberwolves are kings of the first quarter

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Timberwolves are kings of the first quarter

The Timberwolves remain the kings of the first quarter. They outscored Brooklyn 37-36 over the first 12 minutes on Sunday at Target Center, marking the 10th straight first quarter in which they’ve outscored their opponent.

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said early in the season the team identified the value of getting off to strong starts in games. It’s been a focus ever since.

That’s why it made sense for Minnesota to put all of its eggs into the starting basket. That included pairing Patrick Beverley and D’Angelo Russell — the team’s two primary point guards — in the starting lineup to open contests. At times, finding a third point guard to fill the minutes where both guards are then off the floor has proven challenging, but the Wolves deemed that a problem worth having given the upside of the starters.

The five-man unit of Russell, Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the best in basketball, statistically speaking. Yet the same group that starts the game so well has struggled at recent points to open third quarters. That suggests there’s something about the way the group starts that leads to early success.

For the season, the Timberwolves owned the second-best first quarter net rating in the entire NBA entering Sunday’s contest. They outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions over the first 12 minutes.

Now the key is for Minnesota to sustain that success over 48 minutes.

BEVERLEY OUT

Beverley missed Sunday’s contest with a right ankle sprain suffered in Thursday’s loss to Atlanta. That marked the 14th game the veteran guard has missed this season due to a combination of injuries and illness.

VANTERPOOL RETURNS

Former Timberwolves assistant coach and defensive coordinator David Vanterpool returned to Target Center as a member of Brooklyn’s bench Sunday after spending the previous two years in Minnesota.

That tenure included the end of last season, in which Vanterpool worked under Chris Finch, who was tabbed as Minnesota’s new head coach over Vanterpool after the firing of Ryan Saunders.

Finch said he “enjoyed working with him very much.” The two sides parted ways at the end of the season.

“Obviously I came in in rough circumstances for everybody,” Finch said. “He was nothing but welcoming and very professional. … I didn’t have any prior relationship with DV, and through the remainder of that season, I really enjoyed working with him. We made some tweaks to our defense along the way, and he was instrumental helping implement those with an open mind.”

Finch told Vanterpool he is going to be an NBA head coach at some point.

“When you have that type of acumen and that type of experience, it’s only a matter of time,” Finch said. “Getting your opportunity is the hardest thing.”

WOLVES OWNER, PACKERS FAN?

Yes, that was new Timberwolves’ owner Alex Rodriguez at Lambeau Field on Saturday for the Packers’ divisional round loss to San Francisco. Rodriguez, who attends a number of big national events throughout the year as an avid sports fan, was sporting a Green Bay hat, which rubbed a few Minnesota sports fans the wrong way on social media.

Rodriguez was back on the Target Center sidelines Sunday, supporting the Timberwolves.

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