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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — What needs to be said that hasn’t already been uttered to describe one of the NFL’s best rivalries of the last 15 years?
When the Ravens meet the Steelers at least twice per season, we use terms such as old school, throwback, and bloodbath to describe a series in which 11 of the 13 meetings between these AFC North teams in the John Harbaugh have been decided by one score or less, with points often at a premium in low-scoring defensive struggles.
Thursday’s meeting is the first since 1999 in which both the Ravens and Steelers sport losing records, but the stakes are much higher than respective 5-6 records normally indicate as the two are tied with four other teams for the sixth-best record in the AFC. The winner of Thursday’s game will be in prime position to grab the final wild-card spot in the conference while the loser will face the prospects of needing to run the table over the final quarter of the season for any hope of playing in January.
“If you aren’t ready for this game, then you have no business on either one of the two teams,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I have a feeling both teams are preparing. We’re both getting ready, and we’ll you see you guys out there Thursday night.”
After winning their second Super Bowl title in the last 13 seasons and the first of the Harbaugh era last February, the Ravens hardly need validation for what they’ve accomplished — particularly since the start of the 2008 season — but they’ll also stare across the line of scrimmage at their toughest adversary as a red-hot Ben Roethlisberger once again stands in the way of their potential postseason path. Named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, the 10th-year quarterback has dug Pittsburgh out of an 0-4 hole and has put them right back in the playoff picture.
The Ravens do appear to have the upper hand in hosting the Thanksgiving night game while the Steelers are playing their second road game in a five-day span, but the home team faces the harsh reality of knowing it’s never beaten Roethlisberger in a game when the stakes are at their highest.
Of course, Pittsburgh knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in the 2008 and 2010 seasons. An early-December home loss to the Steelers in 2010 crushed the Ravens’ hopes of a division title and first-round bye and ultimately led to them playing at Heinz Field instead of M&T Bank Stadium a month later in the divisional round. December losses to the Steelers in 2008 and 2009 temporarily compromised the Ravens’ playoff standing before they recovered to earn a wild-card spot each time.
And while quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens exorcised some demons with a last-second comeback win at Heinz Field in 2011 to complete a season sweep, that early-November tilt didn’t exactly carry the weight of knowing their season was essentially over if they didn’t win like Thursday night’s game does.
History isn’t on the Ravens’ side when facing Roethlisberger in a big game, and the 31-year-old quarterback has thrown 14 touchdowns and five interceptions over the last seven games to lead the Steelers to five wins, leading many to believe Pittsburgh is the favorite among the six 5-6 teams to grab the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
“You can sing Ben’s praises,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve seen it firsthand. Any Baltimore fan understands what he can do. He can throw on time, he can get out of the pocket and run, he can get out of the pocket and extend plays downfield, and they build their offense around his skills. He’s been a great quarterback for many years.”
Roethlisberger’s relationship with Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been strained as there were even rumors earlier this month about the quarterback potentially parting ways with the organization, but a three-game winning streak has calmed that discussion. Of course, an improved effort from Pittsburgh’s offensive line has helped as Roethlisberger has been sacked only once in his last two games.
That coupled with the Steelers successfully running a no-huddle offense will pose a challenge to the Ravens’ pass rush that is tied for the NFL lead with 37 sacks in 11 games. It’s one thing to put heat on the 241-pound quarterback in the pocket, but allowing him to escape pressure often leads to problems downfield as wide receivers such as Antonio Brown — who leads the NFL with 80 catches and the conference with 1,044 receiving yards — are trained to break off routes to take advantage of the veteran’s ability to improvise.
Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays has frustrated the Ravens time after time in the past, including earlier this season when he directed a last-minute drive for a field goal in a 19-16 win at Heinz Field. In all, the Ravens are 5-8 against Pittsburgh in the Harbaugh-Flacco era, but that record falls to just 2-7 when Roethlisberger has started.
“He’s just great at loose plays, really,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “I think you guys see it all the time when he plays. He’s just hard to tackle, and then he’s just able to find some receivers and throw the ball. He’s just a great quarterback that way. We’ve just got to do a great job at trying to plaster those guys that are leaking out and get him down when we have the chance.”
It’s easier said than done as the Ravens will try to avoid the same movie playing once again as they hope to keep their playoff hopes alive. A loss to the Steelers would not only drop Baltimore a game behind in the quest for the No. 6 seed but would give Pittsburgh a tiebreaker advantage by way of a season sweep.
The great equalizer to Roethlisberger could be Suggs, who has gone three straight games without a sack after collecting at least one in seven of his first eight games this season. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year has sacked the Steelers signal-caller a staggering 16 1/2 times in the regular season and playoffs combined, and the Ravens will undoubtedly be looking at him and fellow edge rusher Elvis Dumervil to put more heat on Roethlisberger than they did last month when they combined for only 1 1/2 sacks and two quarterback hits in the narrow defeat.
With the pass-rushing duo and the homefield advantage, the Ravens will try to do what they’ve never been able to do before — get the best of Roethlisberger when the chips are down late in the season.
Harbaugh and Flacco haven’t been able to do it.
Suggs and Ngata have come up empty every time as well.
Even future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed could never top the Steelers quarterback when they really needed to.
And the Steelers quarterback is in the midst of a hot streak with something to play for, making him even more dangerous than he was when the Ravens saw him six weeks ago.
“He has looked like he is getting back to being Ben,” Suggs said, “shaking guys off and making plays just when you think the play has broken down. I think that’s when he’s at his best — when he’s most comfortable.”