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OWINGS MILLS — The traditional grudge match has turned into a survival situation for the Baltimore Ravens. A victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight at Heinz Field would propel the reigning AFC North champions into a tie for first place. And a loss would virtually cripple the Ravens’ playoff outlook as they would be winless in three division contests while contending with the NFL’s fourth-most difficult remaining schedule.
"This is our playoff game," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "We know what this game means, win or lose."
Baltimore (4-3) has already arrived at what appears to be a critical turning point of its season heading into this nationally-televised clash with Pittsburgh (5-2), which has been installed as a 10-point favorite.
If the Ravens win their fourth consecutive game over Steelers, it could set up a dramatic three-team race to the finish line in the division with the upstart Cleveland Browns also in the mix. A Steelers win would stake them to a two-game edge in the standings that might be too much for Baltimore to overcome.
"It’s now or never right now," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We can’t fool anybody. We can’t fool ourselves. We have to win, point blank.
"We have to win our division. We have to set ourselves up to finish strong, and it starts this week against Pittsburgh."
Beyond the bragging rights that accompanies this bitter rivalry and the long-term playoff implications, there’s plenty of other motivational factors for both teams.
The Ravens humiliated the Steelers a year ago, sweeping the annual series by a combined margin of 58-7 as linebacker Bart Scott punctuated the physically-dominating blowouts by piledriving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into the ground in one of the league’s biggest hits of last season.
Roethlisberger, who’s riding a hot streak with two more touchdown passes this season than Peyton Manning entering Sunday, was sacked 14 times and uncorked four interceptions against Baltimore last year.
"When we got done with what we got done with, we knew we had made a statement and I think they kind of understood it," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have been pointing toward a perceived slight from the Steelers’ brass, which planned an elaborate celebration tonight for the living members of its 75th anniversary all-time team.
To the Ravens, it feels like they’ve been cast as sacrificial lambs led to the slaughter.
"We look at it as we have been scheduled for their homecoming," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Ohio State and Michigan seem to schedule Northwestern a lot for homecoming, and I can say that with a daughter who graduated from Northwestern. .. That’s great."
The Ravens’ potential X-factor is back under center as quarterback Steve McNair returns to the lineup after recuperating from back and groin injuries.
The four-time Pro Bowl selection has always owned the Steelers, generating an 11-4 all-time record against them that includes winning nine of 11 contests from 1998 to 2003.
During McNair’s 13-year career, he has completed nearly 60 percent of his throws for 2,849 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions against the Steelers. He even has a 5-3 record in Pittsburgh with 15 touchdowns for a 102.8 quarterback rating.
In his first year with the Ravens last season, McNair continued his string of success against Pittsburgh with 39 of 55 accuracy for 396 yards and four touchdowns.
"I’ve been to Pittsburgh a lot of times, and I know what it’s going to be like," McNair said with a smile. "These are the times where you really need to rise to the occasion."
The Ravens will probably need a stellar performance from McNair to remain competitive considering their defense is shorthanded.
Starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister (knee) and Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness) are both out, according to Billick. Rolle was officially ruled out Sunday night and didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh.
Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin are preparing to start in their place. This will be Martin’s first NFL start, and it comes against the likes of Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
Plus, rarely-used former third-round draft pick David Pittman will operate as the nickel back.
"What more can you ask for?" said Pittman, who has been deactivated for 20 of the past 23 games. "A Monday night game playing Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh on their 75th anniversary? This is the chance I’ve been waiting for."
The Ravens expect the Steelers to come out throwing, with several players saying they consider Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ bold vow to run the football against the NFL’s second-ranked run defense to be a ruse intended to get them to attack the line of scrimmage and fall victim to play-action passes over their heads.
The Steelers have been established as heavy favorites on most betting lines, and most national pundits are picking against Baltimore.
"These are the games that you’re not supposed to win," Scott said. "What are we 35-point underdogs? Hopefully, we can get off the bus without tripping.
"I’ve been an underdog all my life. It’s a familiar role, I like it, I’m grateful. I’ve overcome that every day of my life."
To overcome the Steelers, the Ravens will need to reverse several negative traits demonstrated during the first seven games against so-so competition.
That includes the shortcomings of horrid red-zone production, the sloppiness of penalties and turnovers, vulnerability against the deep pass and a lack of consistent pass protection, which might improve tonight with the healthy return of starting tackles Jonathan Ogden and Adam Terry and center Mike Flynn.
The Ravens are aware that a wrong turn at this juncture could send them toward a dead end on the postseason trail.
"We dug ourselves into a hole," Mason said. "There has to be some accountability to establish with your teammates because we can’t play the way we played in the first half of the season.
"This is what separates the playoff teams and the non-playoff teams. Everybody is going to have to be held accountable for what they do, and we have enough leaders here to stand tough if things do go wrong."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.