Pittsburgh, Baltimore are ready to deliver a gritty gift
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.”