OWINGS MILLS, Md., Dec. 23 -- The Baltimore Ravens have talked excitedly and confidently throughout the week about their upcoming game with the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Much is at stake for Baltimore, which talked openly before the season about its Super Bowl ambitions and which now faces a must-win game on the road just to put itself in position to squeak into the playoffs. The Ravens may not like their precarious position, but they do like the intensity of the situation.
"We love that scenario; we love being in this position," tight end Todd Heap said. "There's something on the line. We're playing for something, but not only that, it's Pittsburgh."
This hit from Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs on Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox is what gave rookie starter Ben Rothliesberger his chance.
(Chris Gardner - AP)
After losing three of its past four games, Baltimore (8-6) is no longer in control of its playoff destiny; it is tied with Jacksonville, Denver and Buffalo for the final wild-card spot. The Ravens essentially need to win this week and next week against Miami (3-11), and then hope that the other three teams falter.
"You try not to, but you can't help but look [at other scores]. In TV timeouts, you look up at the scoreboard and check to see who's doing what," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "Maybe I shouldn't. But when it's to determine if we're going to go on and play extra, I'm going to look."
Jacksonville, which closes with Houston (6-8) and Oakland (5-9), is in the best position because the Jaguars beat the Broncos and Bills and have an edge in strength of schedule. Buffalo, which finishes with San Francisco (2-12) and Pittsburgh (13-1), is in the most tenuous position because of its 5-6 conference record.
If the Ravens finish in a two-way tie with any of the other three teams, the only tie they are guaranteed to win is with Buffalo, thanks to their 20-6 win over the Bills on Oct. 24. A multiple-team tie likely would come down to the strength-of-victory tiebreaker, and a win over Pittsburgh would be a huge boost for the Ravens.
Baltimore is the only team to beat Pittsburgh this season, and in that 30-13 victory on Sept. 19, the Ravens set the tone right from the start. They ran the ball on 10 of their first 11 plays as they marched 90 yards for a touchdown and a lead they never relinquished.
The Ravens wound up rushing for a total of 172 yards, including 62 from running back Jamal Lewis and 76 from backup Chester Taylor. Baltimore is the only team to gain more than 140 yards on the ground against the Steelers, who have the league's top-ranked rush defense.
"They will run what they have and not make mistakes; they're very well coached and disciplined with their techniques," Mulitalo said of Pittsburgh's defense. "The only thing we can combat that with is what we've always combated it with: the physicality of the game, just pounding, pounding until someone's will breaks."
Lewis is coming off a 20-carry, 130-yard effort against the Indianapolis Colts, only his third 100-yard performance of the season. He said that his right ankle -- which he sprained against Dallas on Nov. 21 -- bothered him against the Colts and that he was essentially "running on one leg," but added that he was feeling pretty good this week.
"Number one rush defense, number 31, 32, it doesn't make a difference," Lewis said. "That's just a number. They're a pretty good defense; I don't think they're any different than anything we saw last year or the beginning of this year. They have the same guys, the same personnel in there. Man on man, if we control the line of scrimmage, we'll be all right."
Ravens Notes: Linebacker Ray Lewis (wrist) and cornerback Deion Sanders (foot) missed their second day of practice, but both are expected to play on Sunday. . . . Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh was one of the finalists for the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh, which ultimately went to former Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt. Cavanaugh, the quarterback of Pittsburgh's 1976 national championship team, interviewed twice with Athletic Director Jeff Long this past week.