Steelers look to wrap up AFC North title vs. Ravens
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens continue their spirited rivalry in a Christmas Day showdown that could ultimately decide which team advances to the postseason.
The Steelers (9-5) simply need a win to clinch their seventh AFC North title and earn a spot in the playoffs for the third straight year. The Ravens (8-6), meanwhile, likely need to beat both Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale to capture their first division crown since 2012.
Either way, the game is shaping up to be another classic matchup between these bitter rivals.
"We are excited about this opportunity," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "When you really think about it, it's going to be an exciting game for us, an exciting game for them. It's going to be an exciting game for the fans.
"You could say that both teams have been fighting and clawing for some period of time to get to this point, to this game, in this stadium, with this amount of significance or what is at stake. From a competitor's standpoint it's an awesome thing. It is a snapshot of December football."
Even though the Ravens are the underdog, they will enter Heinz Field with a sense of confidence. Baltimore has won four straight games in the series, including a 21-14 victory on Nov. 6 at M&T Bank Stadium. A victory would secure back-to-back season sweeps of the Steelers for the first time in franchise history.
The winner of this game will also likely earn the third seed in the AFC playoffs, which means a first-round home game. The Ravens have lost their past four road matchups.
"We understand the challenge that's presented," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Pittsburgh is playing great football. (It's a) great team -- all phases -- a very well-coached, obviously, excellent playmakers, tough, hard-nosed team, and we're looking forward to the challenge. But we feel like we're up to it."
In the first meeting, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was 18 of 30 for 241 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the 21-14 victory. Mike Wallace had a huge game against his former team with four receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Now, the Steelers are out for a measure of revenge.
"We lost the first game," Pittsburgh offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert said. "This game is going to be ours, it's at our field. I'm excited, man. This is why we play the game of football."
The Steelers have improved since the last meeting with the Ravens and are riding a five-game winning streak -- its longest since 2009. Pittsburgh is also getting solid contributions on both sides of the ball.
Much of the pressure will be on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to snap the skid against Baltimore -- a team that has managed to make plays against him.
Over his career, Roethlisberger is 9-9 against the Ravens with 4,170 passing yards. He has thrown 28 touchdown passes with 19 interceptions. He will look to attack the Ravens' secondary by targeting Antonio Brown, especially if starting cornerback Jimmy Smith is out.
Smith injured his right ankle Week 14 in the first quarter against the New England Patriots and missed the following game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He was not able to practice earlier this week. If Smith cannot play, Shareece Wright will take his spot opposite rookie Tavon Young.
"It's going to be tough with Jimmy or not," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "We have to play each play like it's going to determine whether we win or lose."
While Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell has dominated most teams, Baltimore has also managed to contain him. Bell is averaging just 67.7 yards in six career games against the Ravens, who are ranked second in the NFL against the run this season.
In the first meeting against the Ravens this season, Bell carried the ball 14 times for just 32 yards, which is a season-low for the dynamic back.
The Steelers, though, are not concerned about stats. The sole focus is earning a victory.
"We've got to win the game," offensive lineman David DeCastro said. "I don't care how it gets done. If we have one rushing yards or 200 rushing yards -- it doesn't matter. We've just got to get the win."
Updated December 21, 2016