Who thought the Ravens would have a shot at finishing at 11-5?
Just over a month ago, the team appeared to be stumbling toward a sub .500 finish and missing the playoffs for the third straight year. Instead, the Ravens (7-5) made the proper adjustments and are playing their best football at the most critical point of the season.
While it’s nearly impossible for Baltimore to overtake the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2) for the AFC North title, the Ravens can further boost their confidence and keep the momentum going with a win over their division rival Sunday night. The Ravens will go into Heinz Field with some swagger.
“That’s something we talk about a lot around here. It’s the way we organize the whole program – to play our best in December and January,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Our guys take that very seriously, and that’s the goal. We’re just starting in December. So, we’ve had one game out of five, and we’ll see what we’re able to do with this. But, that’s definitely our aspiration.”
The Steelers dominated Baltimore in the first meeting, 26-9. Running back Le’Veon Bell had 144 yards with two touchdowns. However, the Ravens were forced to play without tackle Brandon Williams, whose absence coincided with the early downturn this season.
This time, Baltimore should be more effective against the run. However, the Ravens are playing without Jimmy Smith and could be challenged to shut down Pittsburgh’s high-powered passing attack.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is familiar with the Ravens’ defense and Antonio Brown leads the league with 1,296 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Baltimore cornerback Brandon Carr will be assigned to contain Brown, but will likely need some support from his teammates in the secondary.
The Steelers will be without suspended receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was injured Monday night against the Bengals. It will still be a challenge for the Ravens to win in Pittsburgh, but they are fully capable of doing just that, taking two of the past three matchups in Heinz Field.
“We’re happy where we are,” Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said. “We’re happy with winning, obviously. Anytime you win a game in this league, it’s important. Going to Pittsburgh is going to be tough. Both teams are going to have to be ready. We’re going to prepare this week and try to go into Pittsburgh and get a win.”
The biggest question is whether the Ravens offense can build on their previous performance against the Lions. In that game, quarterback Joe Flacco had his best game, completing 23 of 36 pass attempts for a season-high 269 yards with two touchdowns. His passer rating was 105. Mike Wallace also caught five passes for 116 yards.
The Steelers pose a bigger challenge than the Lions and are ranked fourth in total defense. Opponents have been able to find seams in their secondary.
Flacco will have to play better than he did in that first meeting when he went 31 of 49 for 235 yards and two interceptions. He had a 64.6 passer rating. Flacco needs to get some support from his running game, which has been effective when given the opportunities. Baltimore ran the ball just 15 times against the Steelers in the previous game.
Baltimore’s offense has a big opportunity to make a statement in front of a national audience Sunday night.
“We’ve just got to go out there and continue to play well,” Flacco said. “We’re going to go out there and do the best we can [to] win football games. That’s our mindset. We’re going to put our best foot forward. We’re also going to deal with the consequences. That’s just what we do. We stand up here and deal with whatever the situation is, and we meet it head-on.”