Steelers expect desperate Ravens in AFC North rematch
The Pittsburgh Steelers were at a crossroads in their season Sept. 30 after the Baltimore Ravens shut them out in the second half while handing them a 26-14 defeat at Heinz Field.
They responded, of course, with three consecutive wins to move into first place in the AFC North with a 4-2-1 record.
When the two teams meet again Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, it will be the Ravens staring at a critical juncture of their season. They have lost three of their past four games, including two in a row, and take a 4-4 record into the return engagement.
Steelers players didn’t see that coming when the Ravens left Heinz Field with a 3-1 record almost five weeks ago.
“Very much so,” guard Ramon Foster said when asked if he’s surprised by the Ravens record. “Knowing them, they will do everything they can not to stay that way.”
“For sure,” cornerback Joe Haden added. “With all the talent they have on offense and the way the defense is playing out of this world, I didn’t expect that.”
The Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, allowing 17.1 points per game. They’ve also permitted the fewest amount of yards. But an offense that was averaging almost 31 points scored nine in an overtime loss to Cleveland, and a defense that hadn’t given up a touchdown in the second half through six weeks yielded 17 fourth-quarter points to New Orleans in a 24-23 loss and surrendered a season-high 36 points last week in a loss at Carolina.
That puts the Ravens at a potential tipping point of their schedule. Not only do they trail the Steelers, they are a game behind second-place Cincinnati (5-3). And, after the Ravens host the Steelers, they face the Bengals on their home surface after their bye week.
“It would make a big difference if we win,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on a conference call Wednesday. “That would be very important for us if we were able to win out.”
How important? ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Ravens will have an 85.6 percent chance of making the playoffs if they beat the Steelers and Bengals. Lose twice and the Ravens’ chances dip to 10.4 percent.
And, like the Steelers, the Ravens will have just one division game remaining down the stretch when they close out the regular season by hosting the Browns.
“I don’t care where you play your main rival or any of your division games, it’s real important to play well in those games and win as many of them as we can,” Harbaugh said. “We understand the challenge that is in front of us. We understand how well (the Steelers) are playing. We get what they are about.
“I think these two teams understand each other probably better than any two teams in the league understand each other and how to play each other. We relish the opportunity, but we also understand how difficult it is, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Steelers expect the Ravens to play with a sense of desperation. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotta, after all, considered firing Harbaugh after the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year in 2017. Another nonplayoff season almost certainly would end Harbaugh’s 11-year tenure in Baltimore.
“Everybody is desperate this time of the year when you have back-to-back division games,” Foster said. “It’s not make or break, but I know they want to win just as bad as we do, though.”
The Ravens could be playing the Steelers at the right time on the NFL calendar. Since Harbaugh arrived in 2008, he has won more games in November than any other coach. The Ravens are 30-12 during the month under Harbaugh.
“If we get a win, we’re right back in the thick of it,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle told Baltimore reporters Wednesday. “The sky is not falling. We’re 4-4 with eight games to go. So who knows the way this season is going to end up. ... It’s great that we get to go out against Pittsburgh, a divisional opponent, knowing we have to go play at a high level to win.”
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