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Thursday, December 24, 2009
Updated: December 27, 11:31 AM ET
Ravens-Steelers has different feel

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

When the Ravens and Steelers met on Nov. 29, both teams had major issues.

The Ravens had lost five of seven and Joe Flacco had hit a little bit of a midseason slump, possibly because of a lingering ankle injury. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger was embroiled in controversy. Two days before kickoff, he told Pittsburgh's coaches that his concussion problems would prevent him from playing.

The game turned into a low-scoring battle. Somehow, third-string Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon did well enough to get the game into overtime, but the Ravens pulled out a 20-17 victory. On Sunday, this bitter AFC North rivalry has even more on the line.

Roethlisberger is back and hot, coming off a 503-yard game against the Packers. Flacco has straightened out his problems, his ankle has healed and he's coming off a four-touchdown game against the Bears. If the Ravens (8-6) win, they control their destiny to get a wild-card berth. The Steelers (7-7) could come out of Sunday controlling their own playoff destiny if some of the other 7-7 AFC teams follow a precise script of winning or losing.

This should be a classic.

First, this is a rivalry. The Steelers-Ravens series is one of the hardest-hitting in football. Normally, these games are low-scoring. That might not be the case this week. The Steelers' secondary has totally collapsed without safety Troy Polamalu.

The Ravens' secondary also has its issues. The Ravens have lost two of their top three cornerbacks to injury, leaving them with Domonique Foxworth and a bunch of role-playing backups. Safety Ed Reed (groin) has been injured and spent the middle of the week visiting specialists. What is normally a 13-10 game could turn into something similar to last Sunday's 37-36 shootout between the Steelers and Packers.

Even if the Ravens lose, they could make the playoffs, but it's fascinating to see the Steelers with a playoff pulse. They appeared to flatline in a Thursday night loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 14. A five-game losing streak convinced most people that the Steelers were done.

Roethlisberger carried them on his broad shoulders last week and might have to do the same to get them into the playoffs. Believe it or not, the Steelers could come out of this game with the chance of making the playoffs if they beat the Dolphins in Week 17. But can their defense somehow contain Flacco and halfback Ray Rice?

As much as the focus will be on Roethlisberger, it will also shine on Flacco. In some ways, he's underappreciated. His completion percentage has improved from 60 to 64 percent. His touchdown passes have increased from 14 to 19, and his interception total is 11, one fewer than last season.

Plus, people tend to forget he won two playoffs games last season and then lost to the Steelers in the AFC title game. Flacco is becoming just another great part of this rivalry.

1. Houston Texans at Miami Dolphins: The winner of this game will be 8-7 and have a chance to still make the playoffs. Both teams have come up short in key games this season, which is why they are 7-7 and disappointing. The Dolphins have the best chance of making a run because they are home for the final two games. Houston QB Matt Schaub could ruin things, though. He's had his best season, throwing for more than 4,000 yards, and the Dolphins have struggled against top passing quarterbacks. Miami's pass-rushers are banged up, so they might have a hard time pressuring Schaub. Dolphins QB Chad Henne had three interceptions last week and halfback Ricky Williams has fumbled four times in the past two games. The Dolphins host the Steelers in Week 17.

2. New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts: Jets coach Rex Ryan is at the mercy of the Colts' coaching staff. If the Colts' Jim Caldwell decides to play his starters -- particularly quarterback Peyton Manning -- for four quarters, the Jets don't have much of a chance to win this road game and will be wiped out as a playoff contender. If Manning does rest at some point, the Colts would go with rookie quarterback Curtis Painter. Ryan will chew up Painter with an array of blitzes that could put the Jets over the top. You figure Manning will get into at least the third quarter. The Colts might like to go 16-0, but they would rather make sure they are healthy for the playoffs.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots: The Jaguars come across an old friend when they face Fred Taylor, their former franchise running back. Taylor is just getting back on the field after a season marred with injuries, and the Patriots need him to be healthy because he can help them in the playoffs. A loss by Jacksonville ends its playoff hopes, and even though Tom Brady has been struggling of late, the Patriots should be able to win this home game and wrap up the AFC East title. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was furious with last week's loss to the Dolphins. He might bench safety Reggie Nelson and keep making changes to keep the team on edge. The Patriots plan to go all out in this game to clinch the division and make sure they can rest their starters in Week 17.

Brian Westbrook
Banged up for most of the season, Brian Westbrook is expected to see some action in Week 16.

4. Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles: Last week's loss to the Raiders all of a sudden put the Broncos' playoff hopes in jeopardy. Winning in Philadelphia won't be easy. The crowd will be at its loudest. First, it will honor Brian Westbrook, a banged-up running back who might be playing in his final regular-season game if he retires after the season or the team decides to let him go. The crowd will also be honoring former Eagles favorite Brian Dawkins, who has had a great season for the Broncos at safety. The Broncos' offense isn't getting many explosive plays and the defense could wear down going against the huge Eagles offensive line.

5. San Diego Chargers at Tennessee Titans: Chargers-Titans games are among the most physical games of the season. Both teams love to hit. This Christmas gift should be interesting. With seven wins in their past eight games, the Titans are a dangerous team. Vince Young is coming off a three-touchdown game and Chris Johnson is trying to rush for 2,000 yards. The Chargers need one more win to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC. They've won nine in a row and Philip Rivers is rapidly climbing the list of MVP candidates.

6. Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: All eyes will be on Brett Favre and Brad Childress. How about this irony? Jay Cutler can throw 25 interceptions and isn't benched. Favre has had an MVP season, but because he's audibled against the wishes of Childress, Favre has almost been benched three times this year. Amazing. All Favre has done is won 11 games, been among the top five candidates for MVP and helped Childress earn a three-year contract extension. It also showed how much power Favre has because he refused to get off the field when the coach wanted to bench him. The Vikings need Favre to win this game and make sure they get the No. 2 seed and a bye week. Cold weather will be a problem for Favre, but he knows he can't have a bad game against a bad Bears team.

7. Carolina Panthers at New York Giants: The Giants had their most complete performance in more than a month last Monday night, but the Redskins were completely awful in that game. They didn't show up. The Giants have to beware that the Panthers are trying to save John Fox's job. Carolina's defense is getting better against the run and Matt Moore is coming off his best game as a fill-in quarterback for the injured Jake Delhomme. The key for the Giants is stopping Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and the Panthers' running attack. A win keeps the Giants' playoff hopes alive.

8. Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals: It's been a tough week and a tough season for the Bengals. They've had to deal with the deaths of Vikki Zimmer, wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and wide receiver Chris Henry. But the Bengals need only to beat Kansas City to clinch the AFC North. The Bengals are focused on getting this victory, clinching the division in front of their fans and honoring Henry, who was buried on Tuesday. Expect coach Marvin Lewis to run the ball -- the Chiefs have had three consecutive games in which opponents ran for more than 200 yards. Cedric Benson will be angling for a 100-yard game, but former Chief Larry Johnson would love to tack on another 100 against the team that cut him.

9. Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: The Packers can clinch a wild-card playoff spot with a win, and that's what they should do. Lambeau Field has a lot of bad memories for the Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck lost two playoff games to Favre in Lambeau. Wide receiver Deion Branch blew out a knee on the frozen tundra in the last playoff game and he hasn't been the same receiver since. Seattle coach Jim Mora is coming off two horrible performances against Houston and Tampa Bay and is trying to motivate a team that is heading in a bad direction.

10. Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons: This game means little in the big picture, but it means everything to the Falcons. The Falcons haven't had back-to-back winning seasons in 44 years. Quarterback Matt Ryan (toe) and halfback Michael Turner (ankle) are willing to risk furthering their injuries to change that. It's meaningful because the Falcons are trying to establish themselves as a winning franchise that can be a playoff contender every year. The injuries that have sidelined Ryan and Turner cost the Falcons at least two games, and they were eliminated from the playoff race last week. Wins over a Bills team that may start third-string QB Brian Brohm and over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week will take Atlanta to 9-7.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.