All the Baltimore Ravens have to do to clinch a fifth straight trip to the playoffs is beat a struggling team that's lost two straight and has serious issues at quarterback.
It would be a perfect scenario for the Ravens except for one glaring detail: Their opponent Sunday is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Put the records aside, put everything aside. It's still the Pittsburgh Steelers," Baltimore running back Ray Rice said. "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."
It's never just another tussle when the Steelers and Ravens clash. Six of the last seven regular season games in this fierce divisional rivalry have been decided by exactly three points, including a gritty duel just two weeks ago when Baltimore got the best of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich in a 13-10 victory at Pittsburgh.
In the rematch, the Ravens (9-2) can earn a playoff berth with a win. If Baltimore wins and Cincinnati loses at San Diego, the Ravens will be AFC North champions for a second straight season.
"We know what the bigger picture is, the overall goal, and we can't be satisfied with anything so early in the season," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "The end goal, everybody knows, is in February."
Baltimore earned a No. 2 seed last year and lost on the road in the AFC title game. The goal this year is to stay at home until the Super Bowl.
"We're not in any more of a comfortable situation," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "The more games we win, the more important all these games become just because we've positioned ourselves well but haven't decided anything yet. The stakes are high. We're trying to become one of the top teams in the AFC and in order to do that, we have to win every week. We understand that, and there's a big emphasis on continuing to win. It may seem a loss won't kill us, but you never know."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, needs to turn around things in a hurry. If the Steelers (6-5) lose Sunday, they will be eliminated from contention in the AFC North.
"We can't really control that," Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "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."
The Steelers are still in the playoff hunt, but realistically only as a wild-card team.
Although Pittsburgh has been ravaged by injuries since the beginning of the season, the Steelers dealt with misfortune well enough until quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hurt his shoulder and ribs in an overtime win over Kansas City on Nov. 12. At that point, the Steelers were 6-3.
Leftwich then broke his ribs in that home loss to Baltimore, and 37-year-old Charlie Batch threw three interceptions last week in a 20-14 defeat at Cleveland. The Steelers committed eight turnovers last weekend, which compounded the embarrassment of losing to the last-place Browns.
So now Pittsburgh finds itself in a desperate situation against the Ravens, who have won 15 straight at home and 12 in a row against division foes. Roethlisberger might be back, but beating Baltimore is still a tall order.
"This is a game that we have to win, and we approach it as such," coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Ravens have won four straight and eight of nine. Tomlin and the Steelers don't care one bit what Baltimore can accomplish with a win.
"That doesn't matter to us," he said. "We aren't necessarily worried about what they're capable of doing."
There appears to be no limit what the Ravens can do. Last week, they pulled out an improbable 16-13 overtime win over San Diego after Rice caught a short pass and rumbled through the Chargers defense for 29 yards on a fourth-and-29 late in the fourth quarter.
And now, here comes Pittsburgh again.
"It's not emotionally hard to get back up," Suggs said. "I walk in here, and their color is still that color. When we see it, we have unpleasant memories of them, and when they see us, they have unpleasant memories of us. Both teams love it. So it's going to be good that we get to do it again in the short time span."
This time, the Ravens get the Steelers at home. Baltimore hasn't lost at home since Pittsburgh prevailed 13-10 in December 2010.
Baltimore's home streak is a source of pride for the players, and they have no intention of letting the Steelers put an end to the fun.
"You just aren't going to let somebody come into your home and let them walk all over you," Rice said. "This is Baltimore. These are our fans. This is our city, and we want to do the right thing and go out there and play as hard as we can to protect our house."
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