OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens face their biggest challenge of the season at New England next Monday night, but it’s difficult not to look ahead to Christmas Day.
As it has so many times over the last 15 years, the AFC North championship will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh with their Week 16 meeting at Heinz Field potentially serving as a pseudo-championship game. Despite neither team being dominant in 2016, some of the similarities between the Ravens and the Steelers are striking.
Both teams appeared to be in serious trouble only a month ago before regrouping to hold matching 7-5 records going into the final quarter of the regular season.
“We like the fact that we’re in it,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We like the fact that we’re in a fight for the division championship. That’s our first goal — the starting point of everything we try to accomplish one week at a time.”
The Ravens began the season with three straight wins, then suffered a four-game losing streak, and now have won four of their last five games. Meanwhile, the Steelers won four of their first five, sustained their own four-game slide, and have now prevailed in three straight games.
Each team owns two home losses and three defeats on the road. Hoping to keep pace in the division on Sunday, the Ravens and Steelers each took out an opponent that entered the day riding a six-game winning streak.
While the Ravens offense finally busted out with a 38-point showing against Miami, the Steelers’ maligned defense has allowed a total of 30 points over the last three games. Those improvements have led many to point to Baltimore and Pittsburgh as potential sleepers in the AFC.
But that depends on who prevails in the AFC North since a wild card is unlikely to come from the division at this point.
The schedule favors the Steelers as their remaining opponents are a combined 17-30-1 while the Ravens’ are 26-21-1, but the next two weeks provide interesting possibilities. Pittsburgh plays back-to-back road games at Buffalo and Cincinnati, two teams who have had their struggles but remain capable of pulling off upsets in their home stadiums. The Ravens face the daunting task of a Monday night game against the Patriots in Foxborough, but their Dec. 18 home game against the fading Philadelphia Eagles looks more favorable by the week.
Considering the Ravens already have a win over Pittsburgh — and would thus own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a Week 16 victory — they simply need to be no worse than one game behind the Steelers when they arrive at Heinz Field on Dec. 25. A win over the Eagles in two weeks would ensure that, no matter what happens against the Patriots or in Pittsburgh’s next two contests.
Of course, much could change over the next couple weeks, but both the Ravens and the Steelers appear to be peaking at the right time and are on a Christmas collision course with a division title at stake.
What more could you possibly want?
Safety Eric Weddle came away with his third interception of the season on Sunday, matching his total over his final three seasons with San Diego.
In addition to being Pro Football Focus’ top-graded safety for much of the season, the 31-year-old has brought much-needed leadership and experience to the secondary. From recently challenging fellow safety Lardarius Webb to elevate his play to being one of the first players in the building every day, Weddle has provided a presence the Ravens lacked on the back end of the defense after Ed Reed’s departure a few years ago.
“He is that way at 5:30 in the morning in the weight room. He is that way at 6:30 at night when he is just finishing up his work on tape,” said Harbaugh about the veteran’s enthusiasm. “That is how he lives his life. He is that way when he has his kids in the building. That is how he lives.”
Flacco getting hot?
Asked whether Joe Flacco’s four-touchdown, 381-yard performance on Sunday prompted him to wonder if this was the start of a hot streak for the ninth-year quarterback, Harbaugh didn’t want to make any assumptions.
It only makes sense in the midst of a disappointing year for Flacco and the Baltimore offense.
“It is not like golf, where you go out there and all of a sudden your swing starts grooving [like], ‘I am going to make a bunch of putts in a row,'” Harbaugh said. “There is an opponent over there that is trying to take away your swing. They are blocking your putt. You have to find a way to maneuver through.
“It’s tough because every single play presents a new challenge against a tough opponent that is doing everything they can within their intellect and their physical opportunity to thwart your efforts. We just have to find a way to win the next play.”
Odds & ends
Justin Tucker led AFC kickers in the Pro Bowl voting update released on Monday. He is now 28-for-28 on field goal tries, had made eight attempts from 50 yards or longer, and hasn’t missed a single extra point. He was named to his only Pro Bowl back in 2013. … Cut by Detroit over the weekend, ex-Ravens running back Justin Forsett was claimed off waivers by Denver on Monday, reuniting him with Gary Kubiak. The 31-year-old averaged 5.4 yards per carry in a 2014 Pro Bowl season when Kubiak was his offensive coordinator. … On the heels of the center portion of the field being re-sodded at M&T Bank Stadium, several Miami players complained about poor footing on Sunday, a problem the Ravens didn’t seem to have. “It felt good when I walked on it; I didn’t slip,” said Harbaugh, drawing laughter from media. “But our players didn’t slip, either. Our guys were prepared for it. That is an individual thing as a player. You have to go out there and find your footing in pregame.”