4:15 PM ET, December 30, 2007
M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
Before the Pittsburgh Steelers can think about the path they'll take in the postseason to try and win their second Super Bowl in three years, rookie coach Mike Tomlin knows there's another big game he'd like to win.
With a possibly less daunting playoff scenario hanging in the balance, Tomlin's very successful first regular season ends Sunday in Baltimore where the Steelers look to hand the Ravens their 10th consecutive loss.
The Steelers (11-5) need a victory and a loss by AFC West champion San Diego in Oakland to claim the No. 3 seed and a wild-card playoff game against either Cleveland or Tennessee. A win in that game would mean a matchup the following week at Indianapolis.
If it ends up with the fourth seed, Pittsburgh would open the playoffs with a rematch versus Jacksonville, which won 29-22 earlier this month at Heinz Field. A victory over the Jaguars then would force the Steelers to visit New England unless San Diego is upset in the first round.
"If we have an opportunity to get the 3 seed, we are going to do that," Tomlin said. "It's significant between 3 and 4, saying that if you win your first game then it tells you where to go. So there is definitely at least some significance there."
On facing one of the league's weakest teams first, Tomlin was clear that Baltimore is no pushover in spite of its skid.
"We are going to play to win," he said. "I'm sure (the Ravens) were hopeful that the division will be riding on this game, but it will not. But it will still be a hotly fought battle."
The first meeting between the teams this season wasn't.
On Nov. 5, Ben Roethlisberger tied the franchise record with five first-half touchdown passes and the defense forced four turnovers in the opening 30 minutes of a 38-7 win. Linebacker James Harrison, once cut by Baltimore, had perhaps his finest game on any level with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception and 2 1/2 sacks -- all before halftime.
Roethlisberger missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday, indicating he may sit out this game. That would give Charlie Batch his fourth start in three seasons and first since Pittsburgh's 2006 opener against Miami -- when Roethlisberger sat out after having his appendix removed four days earlier.
Left tackle Marvel Smith, meanwhile, needed back surgery Thursday and won't play against Baltimore or in a first-round playoff game next weekend. Safety Troy Polamalu (knee) is being watched closely in practice this week and may play sparingly Sunday because the Steelers simply cannot afford another injury to a key player.
Pittsburgh avoided its third straight loss on Dec. 20 with a costly 41-24 win over St. Louis. Willie Parker, who was the NFL's leading rusher with 1,317 yards coming in, suffered a broken lower right leg in the first quarter and was placed on injured reserve.
"Our heart goes out to him because he's a competitor, he's a warrior," Tomlin said. "As a team, we're not going to throw a pity party. It's part of the game, people get hurt, we'll adapt and improvise and move forward."
Najeh Davenport replaced Parker and finished with 24 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown. Tomlin said from here on out the Steelers would go with a running back by committee which includes Davenport, Gary Russell and Carey Davis.
"We have a stable of guys we are going to move forward with," Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was nearly perfect against the Rams, going 16-of-20 for 261 yards with three touchdowns, two to receiver Nate Washington.
With a victory Sunday, the Steelers will have gone undefeated in divisional play for the first time since 2002.
After winning the AFC North with a 13-3 record last season, Baltimore got off to a promising start in 2007 with four wins in its first six games, but quickly fell apart. The Ravens (4-11) have been outscored by an average of nearly two touchdowns per game during this nine-game slide, their longest since moving to Baltimore in 1996.
Last Sunday, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith threw his first career touchdown pass -- a 79-yarder to Derrick Mason in the fourth quarter of a 27-6 loss at Seattle. Smith, starting for the first time since Ohio State's loss to Florida in last season's national championship game, was under center because Steve McNair is on injured reserve and Kyle Boller had a concussion.
"Well, he got through the game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said curtly about Smith, who completed 16 of 33 passes for 199 yards and is expected to start again this week.
Ravens quarterbacks have averaged 171.6 passing yards during the skid with only eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Injuries have been the key reason behind the team's worst season since going 4-12 in its first year in Baltimore. Besides McNair, defensive end Trevor Pryce and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are among eight players on injured reserve, and that number could grow.
Linebacker Ray Lewis missed the loss to the Seahawks with a dislocated finger and running back Willis McGahee, the Ravens' leader with 1,207 yards and seven rushing touchdowns, broke two ribs in the first quarter and almost assuredly will not play in the season finale.
The Ravens have won their last two home games against the Steelers, and are trying to avoid being swept by them in a season series for the first time since 2002.
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Steelers begin life without Parker
The Steelers took care of business in St. Louis Thursday night, but for the third-straight week, the defense played poorly. They now have an extra long week to prepare and heal for this game, but it remains to be seen how many of their prominent players will play. The Steelers already wrapped up the AFC North title, but they're still battling for the San Diego Chargers for the No. 3 seed. Two weeks ago, Baltimore lost to the then-winless Dolphins and Brian Billick's job may not be secure. The Ravens followed that up by being thoroughly dominated in Seattle and extending their losing streak to a whopping nine games. The Ravens have the worst turnover ratio in the NFL by a substantial margin, but it must be noted that the Ravens' have lost an awful lot of games to injuries to players with Pro Bowls on their résumés.
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|Avg Points Allowed||16.8||24.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||PIT|
|Rush Yds Allowed||PIT|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 8-7|
|Nov 5, 2007||PIT 38, BAL 7|
|Dec 24, 2006||PIT 7, BAL 31|
|Nov 26, 2006||PIT 0, @BAL 27|
|Nov 20, 2005||PIT 13, @BAL 16|
|Oct 31, 2005||PIT 20, BAL 19|
|Dec 26, 2004||PIT 20, BAL 7|
|Sep 19, 2004||PIT 13, @BAL 30|
|Dec 28, 2003||PIT 10, @BAL 13|
|Sep 7, 2003||PIT 34, BAL 15|
|Dec 29, 2002||PIT 34, BAL 31|
|Oct 27, 2002||PIT 31, @BAL 18|
|Jan 20, 2002||PIT 27, BAL 10|
|Dec 16, 2001||PIT 26, @BAL 21|
|Nov 4, 2001||PIT 10, BAL 13|