SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum
TV: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
SERIES: 26th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead the series 15-10, but after early success in Baltimore, Pittsburgh has lost five straight there, where the series is now tied 6-6. Pittsburgh has won nine of the past 15 games overall, including their past meeting in Heinz Field, 23-20 in overtime.
PREDICTION: Steelers 17-10
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pittsburgh lacks the physical rushing attack it has been known for over the years, and struggles to get yards on the ground in critical situations. But the Steelers must get a strong effort out of RBs Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore after watching Baltimore dial up its pressure packages against Washington last Monday night. The Ravens won't hesitate to bring nickel CB Corey Ivy or S Jim Leonard as part of their blitz packages, and with the Steelers already allowing 41 sacks this season, QB Ben Roethlisberger can't be backed into long passing situations. ... Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco has thrown 12 touchdowns passes and three interceptions during the team's 7-1 streak, but he'll have to do more than just manage this game. The Steelers haven't allowed 300 yards in a game this season, and the Ravens' normally strong ground game will have its hands full against the league's top run defense allowing 3.2 yards per carry. And with Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley already combining for 27 sacks, the Ravens' pass protection schemes will also be under intense heat.
KEY INJURIES: Steelers: DE Brett Keisel (knee) hopes to play after missing two games; LT Marvel Smith (back) is out. Ravens: WRs Mark Clayton (knee) and Derrick Mason (shoulder) are expected to play; RB Ray Rice (bruised leg) is questionable.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers win the AFC North and earn a first-round bye with a victory. ... The Ravens clinch a playoff spot with a win and losses by New England and Miami or the Jets.
--DE Brett Keisel did not practice Thursday and it looks as though he will miss a third straight game with a sprained MCL. Travis Kirschke again will start for him.
--FB Carey Davis did not practice Thursday and likely will miss Sunday's game with a calf injury. Sean McHugh will serve as the fullback. --CB William Gay might remain as the starter with Ike Taylor even though former starter Bryant McFadden is healthy and returned to play in the nickel defense last week.
--P Mitch Berger, who has been terrible in his return, has kept his job mostly because PK Jeff Reed wants him as his holder.
--RB Gary Russell had some early success in his new role as the short-yardage back but he was thrown for a 2-yard loss at the 1-yard line last week and has just 55 yards on 23 carries this season.
--OT Jared Gaither did not practice Thursday with a shoulder injury after being limited on Wednesday. This isn't a concern because Gaither started last Sunday after not practicing all week. He will start at left tackle.
--K Matt Stover missed his second straight practice, but this is precautionary. Stover expects to kick on Friday and be ready to play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he is not at 100 percent. His right ankle is still sore.
--WR Derrick Mason did not practice for the second straight day with a shoulder injury, but there should be no cause for concern. Mason hasn't missed a game since 2002.
--WR Mark Clayton was limited in practice Thursday with a knee injury after missing Wednesday's practice. He is expected to start.
--FS Ed Reed was limited Thursday with a hamstring injury after missing Wednesday's practice. He will start.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Pittsburgh Steelers won a Super Bowl the hard way three seasons ago. Now they'd like to do it the easy way, or at least easier route.
Beating the Ravens in Baltimore Sunday would give Pittsburgh the AFC North title and at least the No. 2 seed, with the bye in the first round of the playoffs that go with it. It also would keep them alive for the No. 1 seed since they play at Tennessee the following week.
"Playing one less game is important," linebacker Larry Foote said of the bye. "You never know what can happen in the first round."
The Steelers have never won a Super Bowl since their four-time run in the 1970s by having a top seed or playing at home. They played AFC championships at home following the seasons of 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004 and lost them all. They did win in 1995 and advanced to Super Bowl XXX, where they lost to Dallas.
They became the first sixth seed to play three on the road and then win the Super Bowl in XL, after the 2005 season. The New York Giants followed the same route two years later.
Still, they prefer to have a week off followed by at least one home game, which is why Sunday's showdown in Baltimore is so important.
"We'd like to take the easiest route possible in the playoffs," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "It would help to get guys healthy and close to 100 percent; that would be a huge plus for us, to get that bye.
"I think our playoffs started three, four games ago. We already had the hardest schedule in the league and right now we're 10-3."
A loss to Baltimore would leave the two teams tied at 10-4, but the Steelers still would win the AFC North and earn the No. 2 seed with victories in their final two games against Tennessee and Cleveland.
When analyzing how the Ravens have gone from a 5-11 team one season to a 9-4 the next, the biggest improvement has been the offense.
That's why there is no debate when choosing the team's Most Valuable Person -- Cam Cameron.
His first season as offensive coordinator has been a much-needed influx of creativity and unpredictability.
Cameron has gotten so much out of so little this season. He doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 running back. He doesn't have a big-play receiver. He doesn't have a healthy offensive line.
Yet armed with a rookie quarterback, Cameron has turned around an offense that regularly slumped under Brian Billick.
Dating back to the game at Miami -- where Cameron revisited his 1-15 nightmare season -- the Ravens have averaged 29.8 points, which is the highest in the NFL over the past eight games.
"Cam Cameron builds his offense on fundamental soundness -- attention to detail, protecting the football and being physical," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But he's creative and he's gutsy."
The Ravens still rank in the bottom half of the NFL, sitting 19th among 32 NFL teams. But the difference has been on the scoreboard, where the Ravens have regularly been putting up 20 to 30 points a game.
Of course, the defense has helped out with five touchdowns during that span. Take away those scores and the offense is averaging 25.3 points in that stretch.
During Billick's nine seasons, the Ravens never eclipsed more than 25 points per game. His highest scoring team was 2003, when the Ravens put up an average of 24.7 points.
Cameron has kept defenses off balance with an inventive playbook. Putting Joe Flacco and backup quarterback Troy Smith on the field at the same time, he has designed option plays for Smith and passes to Flacco.
He has regularly used unbalanced lines, moving two tackles to one side. He's even used three offensive tackles for some formations.
Where Cameron has caught the attention of the team is his unpredictable play-calling.
In Sunday's 24-10 win over the Washington Redskins, he converted first downs by calling a draw on third-and-10 and a pass on fourth-and-1.
The fourth-down decision was a gutsy one because the Ravens only led 14-0 in the third quarter and would have given the ball back to the Redskins at the Washington 43-yard line.
Before the Ravens ran the play, Harbaugh told the defense that the team was going for the first down.
"They kind of looked at me and (said), 'Punt them down in there!'" Harbaugh recalled. "And I said, 'Wait until you see this call.' So then they all jumped off the bench, and they were watching. They couldn't believe it, either."
The play called for tight end Todd Heap to fall at the line of scrimmage before sneaking out to the flat for the pass.
The result: a 24-yard gain that set up a field goal.
Said Harbaugh: "That's Cam Cameron at his best."