The Baltimore Ravens' banged-up defense has enjoyed a resurgence during the team's four-game winning streak.
That has a chance to continue against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that has struggled without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will miss a third straight game.
The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth - and perhaps the AFC North title - on Sunday when they try to beat the Steelers for the second time in three weeks and extend their home winning streak to 17.
After escaping with a 16-13 overtime victory at San Diego on Sunday, Baltimore (9-2) remained one game behind Houston for the best record in the conference. The Ravens also took a major step toward a second straight North crown, which they can wrap up Sunday with a win over fading Pittsburgh (6-5) and a Cincinnati loss to the Chargers.
"The thing our guys have done is, as a team, they've positioned themselves really well to take advantage of an opportunity,' coach John Harbaugh said. "Every game makes the next game that much more important.'
Harbaugh's defense has bounced back after losing linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb to midseason injuries.
While the Ravens allowed 43 points to the Texans in their first game without Lewis on Oct. 21, they've given up a total of 58 points (14.4 per game) during their four-game winning streak.
Baltimore had a season-high six sacks Sunday while allowing a season-low 280 yards in nearly five full quarters against the Chargers.
"We are improving on defense, and we improved throughout the course of the game," Harbaugh said.
Baltimore's offense has done just enough to help the team win six of its seven games decided by seven points or fewer.
Ray Rice finished with 97 yards on 22 carries at San Diego, but his biggest play was taking a short pass for a first down on fourth-and-29 with 1:37 left in regulation that helped send the game into overtime.
Joe Flacco completed 30 of 51 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown, a solid road game for a QB who is averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt and has a 70.2 passer rating this season away from Baltimore.
It's been a different story for Flacco at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens have won 16 straight - including January's divisional round victory over Houston - since a 13-10 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2010.
Flacco has been especially good at home this season, averaging 322.4 yards with 10 scores and three picks there for a 108.3 passer rating. He's thrown five TDs without an interception in the Steelers' last three visits.
Flacco completed 20 of 32 for 164 yards without a TD in Baltimore's 13-10 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 18.
That was the Steelers' first game without Roethlisberger, who sprained his right shoulder and dislocated a rib against Kansas City six days earlier, with Byron Leftwich starting in his place.
Leftwich was hurt in that poor performance, leaving 15-year veteran Charlie Batch to face Cleveland last Sunday. The Steelers' offense struggled even more against the Browns, turning the ball over eight times in a 20-14 loss.
It was the first eight turnover game in the NFL since 2001.
"It's disgusting, and it's not something that we're all about here,' said receiver Antonio Brown, who expects to return after missing three games with an ankle injury. "Hopefully, I can help bring back some order to this team.'
Although Roethlisberger returned to practice Wednesday, he was ruled out Friday. Batch will make his second consecutive start.
Pittsburgh, though, could get a boost to its already formidable defense if five-time All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu can return from a right calf injury that has kept him out since Week 5. The Steelers lead the NFL in total defense at 257.2 yards per game and are tops in the AFC in scoring defense at 19.1 points.
As stout as the Steelers have been defensively, they have forced only 10 turnovers, tied for second fewest in the league.
In two weeks, Pittsburgh has gone from a team in the thick of the AFC North race to one tied with Cincinnati for the conference's second wild-card spot.
"We have to figure out what we need to do,' Batch said. "In order for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to start winning.'
The ground game has also fallen on hard times with the trio of Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman rushing for 32 yards on 15 carries - losing three fumbles - Sunday.
Dwyer, who led Pittsburgh with 55 yards on 12 carries against the Ravens two weeks ago, will start in place of Mendenhall.
The Associated Press News Service
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