Steelers facing sudden death against Ravens

Since waking up on their ninth Monday morning of the season, the Steelers have been in playoff mode. But today's game against the Ravens just might be their Super Bowl.

"The way we started, that's how we have to approach each game," said Aaron Smith. Since the mid-point of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won two "playoff games" to improve to 4-6, but their biggest challenge awaits today in Baltimore, where the Steelers play the division-leading Ravens (8-2).

The Ravens, with a three-game lead over the second-place Cincinnati Bengals, don't need today's game as much as the Steelers, but the Ravens want nothing more than to knock their fiercest rivals out of the race with a win today.

And a win by the Ravens today would do it. With six games left, the Steelers trail the Ravens by four, and the second wild-card teams – Denver and Jacksonville – by two. Both of those wild-card teams also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers.

In other words, today's game is a Super Bowl in November.

"We need it more than ever," said Joey Porter. "And they're not going to let us come down there and take it.'

The two teams have been bitter rivals since the Cleveland Browns relocated as the Ravens back in 1996. The Steelers hold a 14-7 advantage in the series but haven't won at Baltimore since 2002. The Ravens handed the Steelers their only regular-season loss in 2004 and upended them in overtime last season on their way to the title.

"Any time we play Baltimore it's a big game," said Clark Haggans. "I remember when we weren't even in the playoffs a few years ago and Jamal Lewis was going for that record. It still had that feel, that atmosphere, the playoff mentality or whatever you want to call it."

Should it be called hate?

"The coaches hate each other; the players hate each other," said Hines Ward, who even admitted to liking the Bengals by comparison.

"There's no calling each other after the game and inviting each other to dinner," he said of the Ravens. "They don't like us and we don't like them. There's no need to hide it. They know it and we know it. It's going to be one of those black and blue games."

Ward comes into the game already bruised. He was belted in the knee by Cleveland safety Sean Jones last week and practiced a bit Friday, but expects to play. The rest of the Steelers are healthy, except for rookie return man Willie Reid.

The Ravens should be at full strength, except for right guard Keydrick Vincent. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis will be a game-time decision, but The Baltimore Sun on Saturday reported that Lewis looked fine in drills.

"He sat out a couple games," said Porter, "but I know he had planned to sit out a couple to be back for this one. If there's one game you want to be back for, it's this one." Ward believes it's the offense that has turned the tide in Baltimore. He pointed to one player in particular for the Ravens' improvement over last year's 6-10 team.

"They've got Black Jesus," Ward said. "He's the hope. He makes the difference."

That would be quarterback Steve McNair, who came to the Ravens from Tennessee, where he led the Titans to 10 wins in 14 games against the Steelers.

McNair, 33, only has a passer rating of 78.1, but he's been the undisputed catalyst for the division leaders.

"If you've got a guy who's running the ship who doesn't turn the ball over and is doing the things he needs to do, they're going to be in every game," Ward said, "because their defense keeps them in ball games."

The Ravens' defense is second in the league in yardage allowed. They rank third against the rush and eighth against the pass. Offensively, the Ravens stand 22nd in the league (25th rushing, 16th passing).

The Steelers (5th offense, 11th defense) are the superior team on paper, except when that paper includes turnovers. The Steelers' minus-nine turnover margin ranks last in the league.

The Steelers, of course, need to hold onto the ball if they're to have a chance in today's game.

"Nobody's going to give us a chance," said Ward. "Our backs are against the wall. We'll go out there and fight and see what happens."

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