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Starkey: Fork in the road for Steelers

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 10:22 p.m.
Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon during OTAs June, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

The Baltimore Ravens' stranglehold on the AFC North has become uncomfortably tight.

The Ravens have won 11 consecutive divisional games — the second-longest divisional streak of any NFL team since the realignment of 2002 — and have won two in a row at their former house of horrors, Heinz Field.

As one might imagine, those numbers have not gone unnoticed in the Steelers' locker room.

“It's definitely time to bring these guys back down to reality a little bit,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “They've been riding high in the AFC North. We gotta take over. We gotta let them know this is our division.”

It really is time for the Steelers — an underdog on their home field — to make a stand. Willie Colon calls it one of those “fork-in-the-road” games.

Win, and the Steelers not only make a booming statement but also retain control of their fate in the division race.

Lose, and they could be relegated to another winter of squashing grapes.

You remember that legendary Mike Tomlin quote, two days after the Ravens' 35-7 stomping of his team in last year's opener:

“People that compete in this league understand there's a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes. Obviously, last weekend we were grape squashers.”

The Steelers' unspoken theme from that point on was revenge. They might as well have circled the rematch date (Nov. 6) in blood. Surely, they would redeem themselves.

Only they didn't.

And it ruined their season.

In one of the more devastating regular-season losses of the Tomlin era, the Steelers botched a late-game possession and saw the Ravens march 92 yards for the winning touchdown.

Talk about a fork-in-the-road game: The Steelers wound up getting Tebowed in a wild-card game; the Ravens wound up in the AFC Championship, a dropped pass short of the Super Bowl.

Here we are again. Stick a fork in the road. The teams will meet again in two weeks, so this isn't the be-all, end-all, but if the Steelers are going to take one of two — and I'm assuming Ben Roethlisberger will miss both — you figure this would be the one.

Back in Baltimore, the Ravens simply don't lose anymore. They are riding an NFL-best 15-game home winning streak.

“You have to give them credit,” Colon said. “They've changed. They've evolved. They get better and better each year. They get the right pieces. Obviously, they've built their team kind of around being the team that beats us.”

Indeed, the Ravens finally have the kind of offense that even with its inconsistency can score on anyone. You just wonder if they built it too late to complement a great defense because their defense isn't great anymore.

How odd is it to see a Baltimore defense ranked 28th? Their starting cornerbacks are out. Ray Lewis will watch from the sidelines. They've struggled against the run. Even a Byron Leftwich-led offense should have opportunities.

One huge key: The Steelers must keep the Ravens from striking quickly. Baltimore is near the top of league in explosive passing plays. The Steelers have allowed the fewest passes of 20-or-more yards (17) and the second-fewest 40-plus-yarders (two) in the league. Something has to give.

It's not like the Steelers have been AFC North patsies. They've won 10 of their past 13 in the division. It's just that nobody hands out byes for beating the Browns and Bengals. All three losses were to the Ravens.

Both teams are banged up, but who cares? Borrowing again from The Book of Tomlin, excuses are tools of the incompetent.

Everybody knows the deal: The axis of power in the AFC North on Sunday night will tilt heavily toward one of two cities — Pittsburgh or Baltimore.

“We're both the bullies on the block, so to speak,” Colon said. “This is going to set the tone for how the year is going to finish.”

Wallace was asked, immediately after the Chiefs game, what springs to mind when somebody mentions the Ravens.

“Kill 'em,” he said. “I hate 'em.”

You know what Wallace and his teammates would hate even more?

Another winter squashing grapes.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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