Ravens, Steelers ignore playoff talk

December, 24, 2008
12/24/08
1:30
PM ET
 
 US Presswire
 Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin are trying very hard to get their teams to focus on one thing: Sunday's game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

After working every day since July in training camp to get to this very position, both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are suddenly drowning out the "P" word.

Playoffs?

What playoffs?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants to keep all the focus on Sunday's regular-season finale. Likewise for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is so tightly wound this week that not even a special visit from Santa Claus could loosen him up.

Both teams have one more game left in the regular season, but if things go as planned the AFC North will have two teams in the playoffs next week. Pittsburgh (11-4) already secured the No. 2 seed in the conference while Baltimore (10-5) is favored to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) at home to secure the No. 6 seed.

With each club facing a different set of circumstances, here are four key questions facing Pittsburgh and Baltimore in Week 17:

Questions for Ravens

Is this really a must-win?

The game-time change to 4:15 p.m. ET Sunday provided an interesting situation for Baltimore. The Ravens could know by kickoff if they've clinched a playoff berth, but they can't let that affect their preparation this week.

According to Harbaugh, Sunday's game against Jacksonville is an absolute must-win. Baltimore controls its own destiny, but a loss could open the door for one of the three teams from the AFC East.

Harbaugh is telling media representatives and his team that the New England Patriots' 1 p.m. game against the Buffalo Bills (7-8) is his NFL "lock of the week." A win by New England would get the Patriots the No. 6 seed if the Ravens do not take care of business. So Baltimore is preparing as if New England (10-5) is already victorious.

"New England is going to win a football game," Harbaugh said. "We know that. Everybody knows that. So we're going [out there] to win our football game. That's what we need to take care of, and we don't need anybody else to get us in the playoffs."

Although it could come off as gamesmanship, this is the right way for Harbaugh and the Ravens to approach it. The Ravens cannot rest and let up in practice this week without knowing the result.

If Buffalo happens to upset New England, then Harbaugh reserves the right to change his approach Sunday if he chooses.

How dangerous is Jacksonville?

Surely, Baltimore is a better team than the Jaguars. The Ravens have won four of their last five and are coming off the biggest win of the season against the Dallas Cowboys.

But Jacksonville at times has shown flashes of last year's team that won a round in the playoffs. The Jaguars beat both the Indianapolis Colts (11-4) and Denver Broncos (8-7) this season, but they've also lost eight of their last 10.

"As long as we come out and play like we want to and let them know that we're here to play, hopefully we can do that and let them know that they have no business coming to Baltimore and trying to ruin our chances," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's all up to us."

Week 17 games are dangerous, because bad teams want to end the year on a good note. Struggling teams also like to extend their misery by ending the postseason hopes of others.

"They have nothing to lose. They have everything to gain," Harbaugh said. "They're a prideful team. I think we understand the personality of their football team."

Questions for Steelers

Why does Pittsburgh care about winning Sunday?

Because it's the rival Cleveland Browns (4-11).

Similar to Michigan versus Ohio State in college football, so much is riding on the success of the Steelers-Browns rivalry. Tomlin has quickly immersed himself in Pittsburgh's mentality, and a large part of it hinges on beating the Browns every year within the division.

Tomlin's predecessor, Bill Cowher, made a career of doing it, which contributed greatly to his legend. Tomlin would do himself a huge favor by keeping that trend going. So far he's 3-0 against the Browns in two seasons.

"It is Cleveland, that makes it easier," Tomlin said during his weekly news conference in Pittsburgh. "We know the history of this rivalry and we respect that."

A win Sunday would give the Steelers a 6-0 sweep of the division, which is no easy feat. It would also mark Pittsburgh's 11th straight win over Cleveland.

In an ideal situation, Pittsburgh would run up the score early, then pull its starters at halftime and allow the backups to hold onto the lead. Such a scenario would allow the Steelers to get the bad taste of last week's loss to the Tennessee Titans out of their mouths -- and stay healthy.

The Browns are in the middle of a five-game losing streak and haven't scored an offensive touchdown in that span. So don't rule out that possibility.

"However you shape it, a winning performance puts an exclamation point on what's been a solid season," Tomlin said. "That moves us into the playoffs in, I think, a good frame of mind to chase the goals we set out to chase."

What about the health of key veterans?

Pittsburgh entered the year with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule and came out of it with plenty of aches and pains. The notable ailments include starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ankle), safety Ryan Clark (shoulder) and tailback Willie Parker (shoulder).

Every team is banged up this time of year, but not every team is in a position to rest. But also keep in mind that the Steelers have a bye week in the first round of the postseason. The players will get a week off regardless, so that also is factoring into Tomlin's decision to play for the win on Sunday.

Week 17 provides a very delicate balance of health and performance for both the Ravens and Steelers. How the two head coaches handle their respective situations will play a big role in the success of the
se AFC North teams moving forward.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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