Plenty of incentive for Ravens, Steelers
By The Associated Press Sunday, December 27, 2009
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They are the two most visible faces of tough-guy football, as personified by James Harrison's snarling and Ray Lewis' meanness. Fittingly, the weather routinely is cold and nasty when they meet, or much like the attitude each carries for the other.
Toughness isn't an option when the Ravens and Steelers meet, it's a requirement.
Located in adjacent states, the franchises are equally close in mindset and personality, style and identity. A season ago, the Steelers delighted in keeping the hated Ravens from going to the Super Bowl. Now, the Ravens could make sure the despised Steelers don't reach the playoffs, and wouldn't they love that?
The Ravens and Steelers don't need the trappings of the postseason to get worked up about playing each other but, with so much riding on Sunday's game, there is a playoff-like feel that has nothing to do with the predicted snow flurries and cold temperatures.
"They have their personality, we have ours and when the two come together, it's always pretty exciting," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
For the Super Bowl champion Steelers (7-7), losers of five of six, it's beat Baltimore or go home after next week's game at Miami. For the Ravens (8-6), it's a chance — if they get a little help — to secure a return trip to a postseason that wouldn't include Pittsburgh.
"I think it's the premier rivalry in the National Football League," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You can never plan the path, you hope it goes a certain way and then it goes another, but here we are facing each other with so much at stake again."
The Steelers certainly couldn't have planned this circuitous route, from a 6-2 record at midseason to being 7-7 and one loss away from playoff elimination. They gave himself hope last week by beating Green Bay 37-36 on Ben Roethlisberger's game-ending 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace.
"We still have a pulse," Tomlin said.
The Ravens get into the playoffs if they win and the Jaguars and Jets lose, although there are additional and more-complicated scenarios. They're coming off easy victories over the Lions (48-3) and Bears (31-7) and a 20-17 overtime win over the Steelers last month, but this one figures to be much tougher despite Pittsburgh's recent slide.
"The bottom line is they know how tough this game is going to be and we know how tough this game is going to be," Lewis said. "It always come down to being a classic game."
The Steelers will be playing with a sense of desperation, they promise, rather than the sense of despair they carried throughout a losing streak that included losses to the Browns, Chiefs and Raiders.
"I wouldn't miss this game for the world," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.
The Steelers' route to the playoff, seemingly nonexistent a week ago, is far more complicated than Baltimore's and requires, for a start, wins over the Ravens and Dolphins.
"We know it's still up in the air and other teams have to do this and do that, and there are so many scenarios I couldn't even tell you what they are," Roethlisberger said. "The only thing that matters to me is beating Baltimore. The only thing we can control is winning our games."
The Steelers will be without star safety Troy Polamalu, who's missed the last five games with a left knee injury — a major problem for a secondary that's allowed a league-high 11 TD passes in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens know they must slow Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 398 yards or more three times since midseason, topped by his club-record 503 yards against Green Bay. He'll be throwing against a depleted Ravens secondary that will be missing injured cornerback Lardarius Webb and, likely, safety Ed Reed.
Baltimore's Joe Flacco, while he isn't piling up the big numbers like Roethlisberger is, threw for 289 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh last month and a career-high four touchdowns against Chicago. His primary target is Ray Rice, who is becoming one of the NFL's top run-and-catch backs. Rice leads the team in rushing (1,128 yards) and receptions (73).
"That's going to be a big factor in this game, get him (Flacco) on the ground," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "When we played them there we hit him and he still got the ball off and made some completions, long third downs. And Ray Rice is the type of player you have to have someone on him all the time."
The Ravens know how difficult it is to win in Pittsburgh. They've lost eight of nine there, including a 23-20 overtime defeat last season and the 23-14 loss in the AFC championship game in January.
"You can't take back that feeling (of losing in the conference championship game), but it's a new year," Rice said. "We've hit our stride, and we're going into this game with an opportunity to really control our destiny."