The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing their best football of the season, but are still on the outside of the muddled AFC playoff picture. With a Thanksgiving night visit to the archrival Baltimore Ravens, they face a team that's essentially in the exact same position.
Both AFC North teams are among the half-dozen teams in the conference currently tied for the final wild-card berth, making this game a potentially season-altering contest.
"That team is hot," Ravens running back Ray Rice said of the Steelers. "They're playing good football right now. They have (a) group, they have their stable of how they want to play football and they're doing a good job of it right now."
The two teams are tied with Titans, Chargers, Jets and Dolphins for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, though Tennessee would make the cut currently. The top two tiebreakers for the wild card are head-to-head record and winning percentage within the conference, and with Baltimore having already lost in Pittsburgh, the Ravens may be especially desperate Thursday.
"They are a tough team, we have to go into their place and look forward to a good battle," said Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. "There is a lot on the line with this game like it always is when we play them. It always seems like whenever either team is trying to get somewhere, the other is in their way.
"It's that way this week as we are battling in the division and it's going to be a good game Thanksgiving night."
Pittsburgh (5-6) has won three games in a row, all by double-digits. During the stretch, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been mostly mistake-free, completing 63.3 percent of his passes while throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception.
Roethlisberger threw for two scores in a 27-11 win at Cleveland in Week 12, but the Steelers' best performance came from their defense. The unit had a season-high five sacks, held the Browns to just 55 rushing yards, and cornerback William Gay sealed the win in the fourth quarter with a 21-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"Defensively, it was simple. We were able to stop the run, and that put us in position to apply pressure to the quarterback," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "In doing so, we were able to create some turnovers and some big plays, and to actually score."
The Steelers have given up just 4.97 yards per play during their streak after New England shredded them for 8.59 per snap in a 55-31 loss Nov. 3, and they could have another good chance to shine Thursday. The Ravens' offense ranks 31st in the NFL, averaging just 4.54 yards per play.
When the teams met on Oct. 20 at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh held the Ravens out of the end zone until Baltimore tied the score at 16 with 1:58 to play. Roethlisberger then drove the Steelers down the field, setting up a game-winning 42-yard field goal from Shaun Suisham.
That close contest was hardly an exception to the rivals' recent matchups. Since the start of the 2009 season, eight of the teams' nine meetings have been decided by exactly three points.
Baltimore (5-6) also is coming off of a win dominated by its defense, having knocked off the New York Jets 19-3 on Sunday. The Ravens' pass defense was outstanding, allowing Geno Smith to compete just 40.9 percent of his throws, and Baltimore cornerback Corey Graham had a pair of interceptions.
"In the end, we just felt like let's win a game just for the defense, for us," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "Not nobody else, just defense let's go out and try to win a game on our own."
The Ravens have been a much better team this season at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore is 4-1 at home, allowing just 10.8 points per game in those contests.
The Steelers have won three of their last five visits to Baltimore, though, including a 23-20 win last December with Charlie Batch filling in for an injured Roethlisberger. The Ravens have lost only five of their other 42 home games since 2009.
Though having such an important game on a short week makes for potentially challenging circumstances, the two sides won't have to go through much new information.
"We'll be running stuff that we know and understand against a team that we pretty much understand," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm sure there will be a wrinkle or two that they'll throw at us that we'll have to be ready for and just go play football."
There's one wrinkle Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would prefer his team not employ, however. Baltimore used backup QB Tyrod Taylor in the wildcat often against the Jets, with Taylor taking five snaps and lining up as a receiver on seven other plays.
Flacco was not a fan.
'I don't like that stuff. ... I'm the quarterback," Flacco said. "I want to be behind the line of scrimmage, I want to be taking the snaps.'
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