Ravens, Steelers resume blood feud

OWINGS MILLS -- Bone-breaking tackles, wild brawls, angry threats, bounty allegations and tooth-rattling blocks have defined the Baltimore Ravens' blood feud against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "A bloodbath, yeah," Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon predicted. "It's not going to be pretty."

Now, the latest rendition of this brutal rivalry has the added dimension of extremely high stakes. Serious playoff consequences will be contested between Baltimore (9-4) and Pittsburgh (10-3) today at M&T Bank Stadium.

An AFC North title hangs in the balance in this grudge match. This is arguably the Ravens' most significant football game since a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts two years ago.

"I don't think I need any extra boost for this one," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Since the 2006 playoff game, this is probably the biggest game I've played in. What better place to do it than in our own backyard?

"Both teams are going to put on one heck of a show. The football gods have blessed us. It's definitely going to be a game to see."

The Steelers have the opportunity to clinch a second consecutive division title with a victory today because a win would propel them to a two-game lead with tw o regular-season games remaining on the schedule. They would own the first tiebreaker over the Ravens if they finish the season with identical records because they would have swept the head-to-head meetings.

For the Ravens, a tie would keep alive their hopes of winning the division even though they would need help. Pittsburgh could lose this game and still win the division by claiming their final two games against the Tennessee Titans and the Cleveland Browns, earning them the title over Baltimore by virtue of a superior conference record.

"Realistically, you really can't ask for a better scenario, period," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "No matter who it was."

Plus, the Ravens could conceivably clinch a playoff berth today under a few scenarios where they would require assistance. If the Ravens defeat the Steelers and the New England Patriots lose in addition to either the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets lose, then Baltimore is guaranteed a playoff spot. Or the Ravens could make the playoffs if they beat the Steelers and the Jets, Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts all lose. Of course, the Patriots, Dolphins, Jets and Colts have all been installed as favorites today.

Scoreboard watching isn't first and foremost on the Ravens' minds, though. They're focused on toppling the Steelers, and avenging a 23-20 overtime loss at Heinz Field in the third game of the season.

And their confidence has been bolstered by winning seven of their past eight games while scoring a league-high 29.8 points per contest during that span. Plus, the Steelers haven't won a game in Baltimore since 2002.

"I think everyone in the state of Maryland understands and everyone in the state of Pennsylvania understands what this game means to both teams," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Every time we encounter them, something is at stake. That's why it's so heated because you have two teams that pride themselves on playing hard, fast, physical football. When you have them come together, it's going to make for a very good game."

The two best defenses in the league will loom large in this confrontation.

The Steelers feature the top-ranked defense in the league, one spearheaded by strong safety Troy Polamalu, outside linebacker James Harrison and middle linebacker James Farrior.

Pittsburgh is allowing just 241.9 yards per game, also ranking first in rushing defense (73.0), passing defense (168.9) and scoring defense (14.1 points per game). The Steelers are trying to become the first team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the NFL in all three categories.

"They have a tenacious attitude about themselves," center Jason Brown said. "They do bring it. You see them on film and they're relentless."

And the Ravens, led by Lewis, free safety Ed Reed, Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, rank second in the league in total defense.

Baltimore is allowing 253.4 yards per game, ranking third in rushing defense (77.0), second in pass defense (176.4) and third in scoring defense (15.4 points per game).

However, the Ravens are no longer consumed by statistical battles.

"The year we won the Super Bowl, we got into that battle with Tennessee: 'We're No. 1, they're No. 1,'" Lewis said. "It means nothing at the end of the day. If you get caught up in all of those numbers, it's going to get you in trouble sooner or later."

During the Ravens' narrow loss to Pittsburgh earlier this season, they limited the Steelers to 11 first downs, 237 yards, one offensive touchdown and three field goals. The Ravens forced six three-and-outs in the first meeting compared to the Steelers' four.

"Nobody defends them better than we do, so bring 'em on," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "So, I think we know how to stop them. Our body of work over the years speaks for itself. We don't have anything to prove to anybody in the league. We just go out and play."

The Steelers have won four consecutive games, and are looking to end their five-game los ing streak in Baltimore. Pittsburgh is 4-0 in division games, and Baltimore is 4-1.

"For whatever reason, it's hard to win in Baltimore," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "So, we're trying to get that monkey off our back, trying to stay undefeated in our division and we're playing for a home-field bye."

Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked a season-high five times in the first meeting with Pittsburgh, losing a fumble on a Harrison hit that was returned for a touchdown.

Even during that loss, though, the first-round draft pick from Delaware showed off his competitive mettle by leading the Ravens on a scoring drive to force overtime after squandering a 13-3 lead.

"The main thing he showed me from that first game is that he can't be easily rattled," Farrior said. "We showed him a lot of different looks and it didn't really confuse him. He played pretty well and it surprised me.

"He's not playing like a rookie quarterback any more. We're going to have a tough job ahead of us this game. He's got ice water in his blood."

Since throwing five interceptions and being sacked nine times during a three-game losing streak, Flacco has rebounded for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions over the past eight games with a 95.6 quarterback rating during that span.

"I think I'm definitely a better quarterback," Flacco said. "More importantly, we're a better offense at this point. The amount we've grown is huge."

The duel between Flacco=2 0and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be worth the price of admission.

However, the focus will definitely be on the intimidation factor of two intense defenses built for epic games like this one.

"We are the top two teams in the division, you take it for what it's worth," Lewis said. "No jawing, no more emotion into it. Defense, that's your backbone. That's your model to really go and win a championship."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. Can the Baltimore Ravens protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco?

As the Ravens (9-4) try to hold off the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) from clinching the AFC North division title today at M&T Bank Stadium in a game that has major playoff implications for both teams, the offensive line will be a big focus as they attempt to keep Flacco standing. He was sacked a season-high five times in a 23-20 overtime loss at Heinz Field earlier this season. The Ravens have had a lot of trouble blocking outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 2 1/2 sacks against Baltimore in the first meeting. The Steelers have registered 13 sacks in the past three games against the Ravens. It will be up to offensive tackle Jared Gaither, and whomever's assisting him with chip blocking, to contain Harrison. Plus, the Steelers' top-ranked defense features LaMarr Woodley flanking Harrison. The Ravens absolutely need a big game from Flacco to move the football against the Steelers. The Ravens have allowed just 23 sacks this season.

2. Can the Ravens run the football?

Besides fullback Le'Ron McClain, there hasn't been much consistency of late from one of the NFL's most physical running games. Willis McGahee has struggled mightily, and rookie Ray Rice is dealing with a painful shin contusion on his left leg. The Steelers have the NFL's top-ranked run defense, but did allow 88 rushing yards to the Dallas Cowboys' Tashard Choice and 73 yards to the New England Patriots' Kevin Faulk. McClain is their best bet to get something going. He's a hard-nosed, brutish tackle-breaker who generally get the best of his helmet-knocking collisions.

3. Can Flacco protect the football?

The Steelers are on a roll with interceptions, including cornerback Deshea Townsend's critical pick for a touchdown against the Cowboys a week ago. Strong safety Troy Polamalu has intercepted a pass in each of the past four games. Flacco threw one interception against the Washington Redskins, but is generally error-free as Baltimore has won seven of its past eight games.

4. Can the Ravens stop the deep ball?

The Ravens' second-ranked defense has performed adeptly, but the Steelers have a history of success throwing long against the Baltimore secondary with four touchdown passes of at least 30 yards in the past three games of the series. Santonio Holmes' speed is a big factor for the Steelers downfield.

5. Are the Ravens' special teams up to the task?

The Ravens have struggled at covering kicks and creating field position as return specialist Yamon Figurs has struggled all season. This is the wrong opponent to have an off day against. The Steelers feature the NFL's top-ranked kickoff coverage team and rank second overall in punt coverage.

INSIDE SLANT: KEY MATCHUPS

Ravens OT Jared Gaither vs. Steelers LB James Harrison

It will be an extremely difficult task for Gaither to neutralize Harrison's bull rush and speed rush, a combination of power and speed that has allowed him to rack up 28 tackles, six sacks and four forced fumbles against the Ravens in the past three meetings. Harrison had 11 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble that led to a touchdown in the Steelers' 23-20 overtime win over Baltimore at Heinz Field earlier this season. A year ago, Harrison vaulted himself into the Pro Bowl with 10 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery in a 38-7 win over Baltimore. At 6-foot, 242 pounds, Harrison is a compact force off the edge. Gaither will need to lower his pad level to obtain leverage against Harrison, which is hard to do at 6-foot-9, 330 pounds. Gaither=2 0has improved markedly since the first game, but Harrison is a very tough assignment. He ranks third in the NFL with 15 sacks and is just a half-sack away from eclipsing Mike Merriweather's single-season franchise record for sacks.

Ravens CB Fabian Washington vs. Steelers WR Santonio Holmes

Much of the focus this week has been devoted to the Ravens' rivalry with wide receiver Hines Ward, who has been accused of delivering several cheap shots over the years. Meanwhile, Holmes has done more damage to the Ravens' vaunted defense than Ward. In five games against Baltimore, Holmes has averaged 78 receiving yards per contest and has caught five touchdowns. Earlier this season, Holmes dashed past Washington for a critical 38-yard touchdown catch. Holmes is coming off an 82-yard receiving game against the Dallas Cowboys for his fourth-best total of the season. Holmes and Washington will be two of the fastest players on the field today. It's important that Washington jam Holmes at the line of scrimmage to prevent him from reaching top speed quickly to get into his patterns. Holmes has emerged as a better all-around receiver over the past two seasons. Washington is having a strong season, but needs to catch the football better to create some turnovers. Ben Roethlisberger is expected to try to go back to Holmes after experiencing success in the first meeting.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis

1. On the Steelers not winning in Baltimore since 2002: "Wow, you just helped me out with that one. That's one I'm new about. I kind of knew about it, but haven't researched it like that. At the same time, not just them, we just like playing at home. "When you get a game of this magnitude, for whatever it's worth, playing at home is always big. Now, we have them coming back in. Of course, there's a lot on the line, but, for us, it's just another game: 60 minutes. We're going to try to play the way we've been playing all year and see what happens when the clock hits zeros."

2. On playing for the division title: "Realistically, you really can't ask for a better scenario, period, no matter who it was. And that's the approach, me being the leader and trying to keep these guys focused, it does not matter who we're playing. "The bottom line is, let's go play our game for 60 minutes and when the clock hits triple zeros, let's see where we are. So, bottom line, whatever goes on this weekend, if we go out and give our best, that's all we can ask for, really."

3. On if he look s at the statistical rankings: "No, because if you do, and this has been for years for me, even the year that we won the Super Bowl, we got into that battle with Tennessee: ' We're No. 1, they're No. 1,' all that. "It means nothing at the end of the day. The bottom line is you've got two good defenses coming in, and the game is going to be played and one side is going to win, one side is going to lose. If you get caught up in all those numbers, it's going to sooner or later get you in trouble."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison

1. On being cut by the Ravens four years ago: "I don't feel anybody was unfair in the way they treated me, and everybody makes decisions on what they have and what they have to do. The reason they said they let me go was that they needed a tight end. "The tight end they picked up was Daniel Wilcox. We played in NFL Europe together, and he is still there. They obviously needed a tight end. I don't point fault at anybody, but that's just part of the game. Just like the Steelers cut me three times, and here I am now."

2. On the nature of this game: "You've got two of the top defenses in the NFL that are about to g et a chance to get at each other's offenses come Sunday. The defense, I believe, t hat outplays the other one will be the defense and the team that wins this game. You're not going to have a shootout. It's not going to be a 30, 40-point game."

3. On Steelers safety Troy Polamalu: "Listen here, Troy is amazing. He's really unbelievable. Things that I've seen him do on tape where he'll be all the way down in the box and he'll have deep pass, and he'll still get out there. To have Troy in there disguising the look for coverages is really helpful."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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