The Ravens and Steelers will play Sunday in Pittsburgh, and then they will go their separate ways. Out of sight, out of mind? Not exactly. The AFC North title, as it did a season ago, could come down to these two clubs.
But there's more to it than that.
This is a remarkable rivalry. Both clubs have largely been in top form since 2008, save for a few glitches here and there. To the winner of this matchup goes a dose of swagger — beating either of these teams takes some doing.
To the loser goes a trip through the Monday-morning-quarterbacking ringer. The Steelers got that treatment in Week One after looking a step slow and a touch weaker than they had looked in a long, long time in a 35-7 drubbing at Baltimore. All of a sudden, the age of the Steelers' defense was a primary discussion topic.
"The Pittsburgh Steelers. I have three things: old, slow and it's over," former star NFL defensive tackle and current analyst Warren Sapp said on Showtime's "Inside the NFL" after Pittsburgh's opening-week loss, according to USA Today.
Of course, the danger of counting out the Steelers is this: they're the Steelers! And in Week Eight, they played one of their most remarkable defensive games in years, holding nemesis Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense in check in a 25-17 victory.
While Brady completed 24-of-35 passes for 198 yards and a pair of TDs, he had only one completion that was longer than 20 yards. Brady, all things considered, played a solid game — when receivers were open, he found them, and in stride. His second-quarter two-yard TD pass to Deion Branch was just about indefensible — the right pass at the right time against the right coverage.
However, the Steelers' defensive soundness and physicality were the differences in the game. The Patriots had to earn everything they got Sunday. The Steelers kept Patriots pass catchers in front of them, tackled stoutly, covered tightly.
The Steelers put together this masterful defensive effort without starting LILB James Farrior and ROLB James Harrison and key veteran reserve NT Chris Hoke. What's more, LOLB LaMarr Woodley, a pass-rushing force like Harrison, suffered a hamstring injury in the second half.
Nevertheless, the Steelers persevered, and the way they played vs. New England suggests they are again a serious AFC contender. Their play also suggests they are ready to give the Ravens' offense far more resistance than in the first matchup, when Baltimore did what it pleased surprisingly often. But the Steelers' pass defense Sunday covered the Patriots' receivers like a blanket, and the Ravens' passing game has come undone at times this season when their receivers have been tightly covered.
In Week One, Ravens QB Joe Flacco threw for 224 yards and three TDs. Finally, he had defeated Pittsburgh when its star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was under center. As Flacco thrived, Roethlisberger struggled, committing five turnovers.
Both quarterbacks enter the rematch after uniquely impressive performances Sunday.
Flacco led the Ravens back from a 24-6 halftime deficit vs. Arizona, completing 19-of-28 passes for 238 yards in the last 30 minutes. While Flacco's play in the weeks since his solid debut vs. Pittsburgh has generally been a little disappointing, that wasn't the case against Arizona.
As one of the game's top quarterbacks and, like Brady, a thorn in the Ravens' side over the years, Roethlisberger had a big game vs. New England, completing 36-of-50 passes for 365 yards with two TDs and an interception.
Few quarterbacks thrive in the face of pass-rush pressure like Roethlisberger, but not many defenses have gotten after him like Baltimore. ROLB Terrell Suggs has sacked him three times in each of the past two matchups. Steelers OLT Max Starks, who hasn't faced Suggs since early last season, will be put to the test. The scary thing for the Steelers? The Ravens have 25 sacks in seven games — three fewer than they recorded in the 2010 regular season.
Of course, how Flacco handles the pressure the Steelers can generate is no minor story line, either, what with Baltimore surrendering three sacks in both Week Seven and Week Eight.
Flacco's résumé, which includes four playoff wins, got a further boost at the outset of the season. Beating Pittsburgh merits a tip of the cap whenever it happens in a game of consequence. Flacco has taken some criticism since, particularly after the offense was unwatchably bad in a loss at Jacksonville in Week Seven, but another win vs. the Steelers Sunday puts the Ravens in the driver's seat in the AFC North, gives them a greater shot at finally — finally! — getting a home playoff game. That hasn't happened since 2006.
Once again, the Steelers stand in Flacco's path toward greater respectability, and in the Ravens' path toward an easier path in January.
And the Steelers, you can say with confidence, will be revenge-minded. There is always a score to settle in this rivalry. Once again, the stakes aren't of the penny-ante variety.
Just think if they meet for a third time in January.