Pitts­burgh, Baltimore are ready to de­liver a gritty gift

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Will Graves

pitts­burgh» When safety Mike Mitchell ar­rived in Pitts­burgh in 2014, it didn’t take long to get in­doc­tri­nated into his new team’s par­tic­u­lar dis­taste for the Baltimore Ravens.

“It was just you don’t like Baltimore,” Mitchell said. “It was like grow­ing up in the Cold War, you don’t like Rus­sia.”

Call it the byprod­uct of a decade-plus of try­ing to wrest the AFC North ti­tle from the other (save for the oc­ca­sional in­tru­sion by Cincin­nati). The two teams that have claimed 10 of the 14 divi­sion crowns since the AFC North was formed in 2002 meet at Heinz Field on Christ­mas Day. The win­ner earns a very di­rect path to the play­offs. The loser is al­most cer­tainly out.

“I’m as­sum­ing this is what the NFL wanted,” Steel­ers quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger said.

Con­sid­er­ing the oc­ca­sion­ally way­ward paths Pitts­burgh (9-5) and Baltimore (8-6) took to get here, they’ll take it, too. Both teams have en­dured fourgame los­ing streaks that evap­o­rated their early-sea­son mo­men­tum. Both have re­bounded late in the year. The Steel­ers have won five straight, while Baltimore is 5-2 since its bye week, the two set­backs com­ing in com­pet­i­tive losses on the road to New Eng­land and Dal­las.

Baltimore is 6-1 in its last seven meet­ings with Pitts­burgh, in­clud­ing a play­off win at Heinz Field in 2014. In a 21-14 vic­tory at home on Nov. 6, the Ravens com­pletely shut down Roeth­lis­berger, Le’Veon Bell and An­to­nio Brown for three quar­ters in Roeth­lis­berger’s first game back from knee surgery. The Steel­ers in­sist they’re far bet­ter than they were six weeks ago. Then again, so is Baltimore, a team that seems to thrive when play­ing in front of a sea of yel­low Ter­ri­ble Tow­els.

“It is not about be­ing com­fort­able there or not be­ing com­fort­able there,” said quar­ter­back Joe Flacco, who is a re­spectable 5-6 in Pitts­burgh. “It is just about the fact that it is a big game in a high-pres­sure sit­u­a­tion. They don’t like us, and that is what it is all about.”

The Steel­ers can lock up the divi­sion and earn a third straight play­off berth with a win. Baltimore needs to top Pitts­burgh, then win in Cincin­nati on New Year’s Day to re­turn to the post­sea­son af­ter miss­ing out in 2015. Just an­other layer to add to a com­bustible mix on a day de­signed to cel­e­brate peace and joy.

“There is a pro­fes­sional hate with each other,” Ravens wide re­ceiver Steve Smith said. “It is also (that) the Pitts­burgh and Ravens ri­valry is pretty fierce, pretty in­tense, hard hit­ting. It has been that way for a long time. Our fans hate them. Their fans hate us. It is a great di­vorce.”

Merry Christ­mas.

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