Thursday marked a year since the most bizarre chapter of a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that’s been one of the NFL’s best for two decades.
Dealing with a massive COVID-19 outbreak that prompted three postponements and a surreal Wednesday afternoon kickoff at Heinz Field, Baltimore was without multiple starters on both sides of the ball and had lost three of four games, its playoff hopes not looking promising. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was undefeated and a heavy favorite on its way to the AFC North title, still aiming for the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The undermanned and underdog Ravens lost that day, but the closer-than-expected 19-14 final marked a turning point for both teams. John Harbaugh’s gritty team managed to get healthy and rallied to win the final five games as well as its first playoff game in six years. Already hearing accusations of being a flawed team even before their unimpressive performance against Baltimore to move to 11-0, the Steelers lost four of their last five before being clobbered by Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs. It’s a reminder of how unpredictable the rivalry can be and just how quickly the fortunes of a season can swing — for better or worse.
A year later, Pittsburgh is a total mess at 5-5-1 and coming off a 41-10 blowout loss at Cincinnati that leaves Mike Tomlin’s team 11th in the conference. The Steelers are now 6-10-1 since that win over the Ravens and are struggling on both sides of the ball with a talented defense underperforming — and facing the prospects of playing without All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt — and Ben Roethlisberger playing like a shell of the Hall of Fame quarterback that tormented Baltimore for years.
In contrast, the resilient Ravens have survived a myriad of injuries to sit atop a fickle AFC at 8-3 entering Week 13, but — similar to Pittsburgh last season — many question their championship viability. Lifted by five fourth-quarter comeback victories, a 6-1 record in one-possession games, and one of the league’s easier schedules to this point, the Ravens have a point differential and efficiency marks more indicative of a team closer to being .500 than one of the NFL’s elite teams. None of this is to suggest that the Ravens didn’t earn their eight wins or should apologize for not being more dominant, but it does make one take pause as they navigate the final six games — three on the road against division foes — against teams currently .500 or better. And those key names on injured reserve aren’t coming back before season’s end.
It doesn’t help that the Ravens have scored more than 17 points just once in the last five games with Lamar Jackson uncharacteristically struggling as a passer since his sensational comeback against Indianapolis in Week 5. And despite a superb performance against Cleveland last Sunday, the Baltimore defense has allowed the most completions of at least 20 yards and 40 yards in the NFL, reflecting the propensity for giving up big plays at the worst times.
But none of that really matters Sunday as Tomlin and Harbaugh meet for the 30th time in this rivalry. We’ve seen a Steelers team led by third-string quarterback Charlie Batch beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in Baltimore and a just-signed Ryan Mallett knock off a playoff-bound Pittsburgh team in the penultimate game of the regular season. Any notion of the Ravens merely showing up and playing anything less than their best football against the struggling Steelers in Pittsburgh asks for disappointment.
And let’s forget about that transitive property of winning that media and fans foolishly try to apply every week. The Ravens were blown out at home by Cincinnati in late October. The Bengals were flattened in their own stadium by the Browns a couple weeks later. The Steelers won in Cleveland the week before that happened. Go figure.
Yes, the Ravens have the opportunity to all but bury their biggest rival and maintain their lead in the division and the entire AFC with a win. While you’d like to see a breakout performance and some style points at some juncture to quiet the chatter about point differential and DVOA, you never take any victory over the Steelers for granted, especially in Pittsburgh. And though a loss on Sunday would hardly mean they’re destined for a 2020 Pittsburgh-like tailspin, the Ravens sliding back to the rest of the pack with just over a month to go in the regular season would be concerning.
If Tomlin’s team has anything left in a tank that looked bone dry in the brutal performance against the Bengals, it figures to surface for Sunday’s tilt. It’s now or never for this version of the Steelers.
These rivals are undoubtedly going in opposite directions at the quarterback position with the 24-year-old Jackson among the league’s very best and the 39-year-old Roethlisberger barely holding on to try to make one last stand. That should be the difference in the game looking at it on paper, but you’re never quite sure what to expect in this Ravens-Steelers rivalry, which is the beauty of it.
These are the games capable of flipping the fortunes of a season just like that.