BALTIMORE – Even though the Steelers and Ravens met just two weeks ago at Heinz Field, much has changed for Pittsburgh.
In that game, the Steelers hosted the Ravens with first place on the line in the AFC North.
Two losses later, Pittsburgh (6-5) is fighting for its playoff life. Baltimore (9-2) can clinch the division title with a full month to play with a victory today at M&T Bank Stadium.
Despite that, neither side is conceding anything in what has become arguably the NFL’s most fierce rivalry.
“Put the records aside; put everything aside. It’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice. “Every year, the rivalry never changes. They are who they are. We are, obviously, trying to do what they’ve done, and they’ve won multiple Super Bowls. You can’t just call it another game.”
Given the Steelers’ injury situation, however, it just might be.
The Steelers will play their third consecutive game without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, having lost the previous two games he sat out.
One of those games was the previous meeting with Baltimore, a game in which the Ravens didn’t score an offensive touchdown but won, 13-10.
Byron Leftwich started that game at quarterback for the Steelers, but suffered fractured ribs. Charlie Batch got the start last week in a 20-14 loss at Cleveland in which the Steelers turned the ball over eight times. Batch will be under center again today.
Batch, who completed 20 of 34 passes for 199 yards and had three interceptions, hopes to play better, or this game might be his final NFL start. Batch turns 38 Wednesday, and Roethlisberger is expected to return from a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib next week when Pittsburgh hosts San Diego.
“For me, you have that opportunity to go out again and correct those mistakes,” said Batch, when asked about making back-to-back starts. “Now you’re dealing with timing issues, and you’re talking about play clock management. I had a delay of game, and that’s unacceptable. I shouldn’t do that, and it has to be corrected this week. You’re talking about five yards of field position in that situation. Obviously, I was disappointed and Coach (Mike) Tomlin was disappointed in that because that’s something where I expect better from myself.”
While a Baltimore victory would end any hopes of the Steelers winning the AFC North and playing at home in the postseason, a Pittsburgh loss would not damage its playoff hopes much.
Currently, just seven AFC teams have winning records, and the Steelers have already beaten the Bengals – the team they are tied with for the final playoff spot at this point – in Cincinnati. Another meeting at Heinz Field is coming up later this month.
If the Steelers can win three of their final four games – three of which are at home – including a victory over the Bengals, they will likely be in the playoffs.
“The situation and where we stand is where we stand, and we have to get better moving forward,” said wide receiver Antonio Brown, who will return to the lineup this week after missing the past three games with a sprained ankle.
Getting Brown back will help. So, too, will having All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu back.
Polamalu, who has been limited to two games with a torn calf muscle, will play for the first time in nearly two months.
Until the Steelers get Roethlisberger back, they are just treading water.
“We can’t really control that,” said Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. “We just have to keep playing football and let everything fall where it falls. It doesn’t matter. We just need to get a ticket to The Dance; that’s it.”
Odds and end zones
The Ravens have averaged 36 points per game at home and 16 on the road. ... Baltimore has won its past 12 AFC North games and hasn’t lost at home since dropping a 13-10 decision to the Steelers in December 2010. ... Jonathan Dwyer will start at running back for the Steelers, while rookie Kelvin Beachum and Jason Worilds will start at right tackle and outside linebacker, respectively. ... The Steelers are 18-15 against the Ravens, including 8-8 in Baltimore. ... The Steelers have not allowed more than 169 yards passing in their past six games.