The Pittsburgh Steelers might be eliminated from postseason contention by the time their game at Baltimore kicks off — and if not, the Ravens would certainly be happy to drive the final stake through those playoff hopes.
Not that either team needs extra motivation in this rivalry.
“There’s really not much more to be said — it’s Pittsburgh Steelers week,” said Chris Horton, Baltimore's special teams coordinator. “I think everyone understands what that means around here.”
The Ravens host Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and that fact that this matchup was moved into prime time says a lot about the significance of the rivalry. Baltimore has already clinched a postseason berth, and the Steelers are a long shot at this point. They need to win out, and even that probably wouldn't be enough.
Pittsburgh (7-8) could be eliminated before Sunday night's game if Miami beats New England earlier in the day.
"We’re going to focus on the things in our control, and that’s our preparation, and then what we do inside the stadium on Sunday night," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We acknowledge all those scenarios and things exist. But all of those scenarios and things have existed since September 11, since we started the season. Every time you step on the field, there’s high urgency."
One thing still left in Pittsburgh's control is the team's streak of .500-or-better finishes under Tomlin. He's in his 16th year and has never had a losing season. In fact, the Steelers haven't had a losing record since going 6-10 under Bill Cowher in 2003. Pittsburgh has won five of its last seven to keep the possibility of a winning season alive.
The Ravens (10-5) beat the Steelers 16-14 on Dec. 11 in their first full game after star quarterback Lamar Jackson's knee injury. Jackson still hasn't returned, but Baltimore was able to beat Pittsburgh and Atlanta without him.
Jackson still wasn't practicing Wednesday or Thursday this week, so all signs pointed to Tyler Huntley starting in his place again.
“Lamar is doing well. He’s working hard, getting his rehab done,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “The sooner we can get him back, the better. Especially heading into the playoffs, (we’d) love to get some work in before then, but you can’t rush Mother Nature. We have to make sure he’s right.”
GROWING UP ON THE JOB
Tomlin believes Pittsburgh's young offense — the Steelers don't have a skill position player older than 26 — took a significant step forward in the final minutes last week. Quarterback Kenny Pickett led a 10-play, 76-yard drive in which his seven completions went to players in either their first or second year in the league — the last a 14-yard touchdown strike to rookie wide receiver George Pickens with 46 seconds left.
“I didn’t see big eyes, I saw sure eyes,” Tomlin said. “I saw guys that understood what was at stake and guys that look prepared to go do it.”
DIVISION IN PLAY
Although Baltimore is safely in the playoffs, the Ravens might need a win this weekend to stay in the AFC North race. Baltimore is a game behind first-place Cincinnati, which faces Buffalo on Monday night.
If the Ravens beat Pittsburgh, that would ensure that the division race comes down to the Ravens-Bengals game to end the regular season.
STOPPING THE RUN
The Ravens won the first meeting against the Steelers thanks in large part to 215 yards on the ground, impressive considering Jackson was out of the lineup and Huntley exited in the second half with a concussion. Huntley's absence forced the Ravens to turn to third-stringer Anthony Brown.
It hardly mattered as Baltimore won the battle at the line of scrimmage repeatedly, including in the final minutes as the Ravens ran out the clock. Pittsburgh's defense responded by allowing just 21 yards rushing to Carolina and 58 to Las Vegas.
“I don’t know that (the Baltimore loss) was a fork in the road, if you will, for our run defense,” Tomlin said. “More than anything, I thought we had a bad day. I think our run defense has been really solid over the second half of the year. It wasn’t reflected in our play that day."
Since acquiring linebacker Roquan Smith in a trade from Chicago, the Ravens are 5-2 and have allowed more than 14 points only once.
“I think it’s just guys playing for one another, bending but not breaking, and just trusting that at the end of the day, we’re going to make something happen,” Smith said. “We believe that, and we believe in each other.”
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Noah Trister, The Associated Press