Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Ravens, Steelers fighting to the end
By Jamison Hensley
The Steelers and Ravens know they both need to keep winning in hopes of securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers don't face each other on the field for the rest of the regular season, but the AFC North rivals are engaged in the NFL's best battle over the next four weeks.
Both teams boast 9-3 records, the best marks in the division as well as the AFC. Both teams realize they can't afford another loss. And both teams know what's at stake.
The winner takes the AFC North title, a home playoff game and likely a first-round bye. The loser gets to pack its bags and head on the road for the postseason.
So, the Ravens and Steelers aren't fighting over supremacy of the division. They're fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl, based on recent history in the AFC and between the franchises.
The past four AFC champions have either been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The last fifth or sixth seed in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl was the 2005 Steelers.
The Ravens began talking about their quest for a top seed before the season began. Getting home field in this rivalry isn't only an advantage, it's a necessity. Baltimore is 7-2 against the Steelers at home since 2003, while two of the Ravens' past three seasons have ended in Pittsburgh.
Players on both teams anticipate Baltimore and Pittsburgh meeting in the playoffs once again.
"We’re going to have to see this team in January," Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the Ravens won in Pittsburgh last month. "We just positioned ourselves for them to have to come to M&T [Bank Stadium] so we can do it.”
The Ravens and Steelers are the class of the AFC, even though they have the same record as New England and Houston. It's just difficult to think of the Patriots and Texans as serious contenders when New England has the NFL's worst defense and Houston has a third-string rookie starting at quarterback.
It's also difficult to think the Ravens or the Steelers will go to the stadium of their fiercest rival and leave with a victory. That's not to say it's impossible. Joe Flacco has led the Ravens on last-minute, game-winning touchdown drives on his last two regular-season trips to Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. And Ben Roethlisberger has thrown two winning, fourth-quarter touchdown passes in Baltimore in 2008 and 2010.
Still, both teams and their defenses are playing at a different level when they're in front of their home crowd. The Ravens have won eight straight games at M&T Bank Stadium, the second-longest current streak in the NFL (behind the Green Bay Packers). Baltimore has outscored opponents at home 175-95, beating the likes of Pittsburgh, Houston, San Francisco, Cincinnati and the New York Jets.
The Steelers are 29-9 (.763) at Heinz Field under coach Mike Tomlin, including 5-1 this season. Pittsburgh has outscored teams at home 159-77, defeating the likes of New England, Tennessee and Cincinnati.
What makes it so tough to beat these teams at their own place is Ray Lewis, Suggs, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Since 2008, the Ravens have given up the fewest points at home (13.4) and the Steelers have allowed the second fewest (15.7). Over that same span, Pittsburgh has given up the fewest yards at home (268.6) and Baltimore has allowed the second fewest (272.2).
The difference is the Ravens can decide their playoff future. If Baltimore wins the final four games, the Ravens will host their first playoff game since 2006.
"We know we control our own destiny," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "Regardless of who we play, we've got to take care of business."
The reason the Ravens control their destiny is because they swept Pittsburgh in the regular season for only the second time in their history. Giving up that 92-yard drive to Flacco in the final minutes represents the difference between the Steelers leading the Ravens and trailing them.
Now, in order for the Steelers to win their sixth AFC North title, they have to finish one game ahead of Baltimore. That means Pittsburgh needs to win its last four games (home against Cleveland, at San Francisco, home against St. Louis and at Cleveland) and the Ravens need to lose at least one of their remaining games (home against winless Indianapolis, at San Diego, home against Cleveland and at Cincinnati).
"Coach Tomlin always talks about just playing," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Don't look at Baltimore. We just have to worry about what we can do [and] take it one game at a time."
Ward added: "We just have to keep playing. We can't control what Baltimore does. If we do what we do, at the end, we might be there in the hunt of things."
For the Ravens and Steelers, the end of this season has a different feel because the teams aren't playing each other in December for the first time in five years. Instead of delivering knockout blows to one another, the Ravens and Steelers know that beating the other teams could hurt their rival just as much.
If Baltimore wins out, it likely will earn the top seed in the AFC based on a better strength of victory over New England and Houston. That would mean the road to the Super Bowl would go through Baltimore for the first time in the Ravens' 16-year existence.
“Our guys understand the importance of where we’re at," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, "because if you’re going to be at this level, you’re not just competing against the team you have to play on Sunday."