For Ravens, Steelers, close encounters the norm
The Steelers and Ravens don't know anything but close.
Their games are close — no rivalry in the NFL can match it for the sliver-thin margin for error that exists when they play. Their division races are even closer.
Six of the past seven regular-season games between the AFC North rivals were decided by three points, including the 13-10 Ravens win at Heinz Field two weeks ago. Each of the past three seasons, the teams finished with identical records — and they were only one game apart in 2008. That's a one-game difference in the standings out of 64 games played over four seasons.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh owns the best winning percentage (.707) of any coach since the 1970 NFL merger; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (.670) is a close third.
There are blow-ups in this series — it's common for players to jaw at each other in advance of the game — but blow-outs almost never occur.
Yet the Steelers (6-5) are dealing with lowered expectations as they enter the second matchup of the season Sunday against the Ravens (9-2), who could wrap up the AFC North with a quarter of the season to go.
The Ravens simply aren't losing at home (15-game winning streak), against division opponents (12 wins in a row) or to anyone of late (a four-game winning streak).
They're peaking at the right time, with the playoffs drawing closer. And they're coming off the kind of how-did-that-happen, 16-13 overtime win in San Diego that Ray Rice manufactured by converting on a fourth-and-29 screen pass.
By contrast, the Steelers are sliding with two consecutive losses and a backfield in flux, with three quarterbacks and four running backs used in just the past three games. They're still in the lead for an AFC wild-card berth, but as quarterback Charlie Batch said, “We have to start winning.”
M&T Bank Stadium wouldn't seem to be the place to start for a team trying to dodge its first three-game losing streak since 2009.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs) has been ruled out, and the Steelers are 0-6 against the Ravens when he doesn't start, counting his debut game in 2004.
And while the Steelers defense is ranked No. 1 — isn't it always? — it is not forcing turnovers or getting many sacks, the kind of plays that can halt a drive, decide a close game and preserve an offense, especially one that is being guided by its No. 3 quarterback in Batch. And one that will start a rookie right tackle, Kelvin Beachum, against Ravens pass rush ace Paul Kruger, who tormented the Steelers in the earlier game.
Unlike nearly every Steelers-Ravens game in the last dozen seasons — the Ravens' 35-7 win at home last season was an exception — this one seemingly should not be as close as usual. The Ravens are in position to win their fourth in a row against the Steelers; neither team has won that many in a row in this series in 10 years.
“But I wouldn't call it a tide turn,” Rice said. “They've won many Super Bowls. You can win in the regular season, but you have to win when it matters. They are winners. They win Super Bowls. I don't think the tide will change until we win our Super Bowls.”
A tidal shift could continue Sunday, though, one that would sweep the Ravens into the playoffs merely by winning — and, possibly, help sweep the Steelers out of them. The Ravens are guaranteed to make the playoffs if they win; they can claim the division with a win and a Bengals loss to the Chargers.
“They've beat us three times in a row. They kind of have our number right now,” Clark said. “But it's like the same old Steelers going to play the Ravens, playing as hard as we can, and we're going to try win a football game.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.