When the Ravens made the trip to Heinz Field five weeks ago, they were presented with an opportunity to all but bury the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers were 1-4 at the time and winless at home. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was under siege, Pittsburgh had no running game to speak of and its defense wasn't getting pressure or creating turnovers.
A 19-16 victory over the Ravens back on Oct. 20 wasn't necessarily a cure-all to the Steelers' problems but as the teams get set to renew acquaintances Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium, the circumstances surrounding the game have changed significantly.
The Steelers have won three straight games behind a resurgent offense and an aggressive defense. Suddenly, they look like legitimate playoff contenders while it is the Ravens who badly need a victory on Thanksgiving night to keep their postseason hopes alive.
"It's going to be a make-or-break game," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said.
The Ravens and Steelers are two of six AFC teams with 5-6 records. Because of various tiebreaker scenarios, the Tennessee Titans currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot over the other 5-6 teams. However, with five games to go and so many teams still in the playoff picture, it's hard to put too much stock right now in tiebreakers.
What can't be discounted, is another Ravens' loss to the Steelers would drop them one game behind their archrivals and guarantee they would lose any potential head-to-head tiebreaker with Pittsburgh. So essentially, the Ravens would have to make up two games on Pittsburgh with just four to play to have any shot at the final playoff spot.
"We have a lot at stake," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "… We understand where we're at. We know what everybody's record is. But we also know we have to win. None of that matters unless we continue to win. We've got to win as many games as we can and be hopeful that's enough to get us in. That's what we're hoping for. We haven't given up yet on the division championship either. But we have to win games. That's it. We have to win the next one that's on our schedule."
A day after their 19-3 victory over the New York Jets, the Ravens got back to work out of necessity, knowing that another game is just four days away. They had their standard meetings and film review Monday morning and then a brief practice that ended at about 6 p.m. The Steelers did not practice at all.
Traditionally after a Sunday game, the Ravens would come in on Monday, go through meetings, film review and then a walk-through practice to correct mistakes made in the game. Most players would then be out of the building late Monday afternoon and get Tuesday off. But this certainly isn't a normal week.
"It's tough," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "Obviously you see us at the end of practice now and I'll probably be here until 7:30 taking care of my body. There's no set agenda. You know you have a short turnaround. If coach gives you an opportunity to get off your feet, the best thing to do is use your facilities. That's what I do."
The Ravens have had similar turnarounds before so it's not something for which they haven't prepared. They also know that it's not a standard Thursday night game.
Harbaugh called playing on Thanksgiving night — which the Ravens are doing for the second time in three years — an "honor," and playfully called for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to make it a permanent tradition in Baltimore. He's embracing all that comes with the game, including the limited preparation time for a game that is annually among the most physical that they play in.
"Physically, we have to get back. The turnaround is quick [after the] physical football game that we were in," Harbaugh said. "We were in a very physical game so we got to get our guys back and ready to play another physical game after that. That's one challenge. The other challenge is being mentally prepared from a standpoint of what to expect X and O's wise, how to execute our schemes, timing in the passing game. Things like that are a challenge in a week like this."
Harbaugh acknowledged that the familiarity with the Steelers makes things a little bit easier. Not only did the two teams play a little over a month ago, but this will be their 14th matchup since the 2008 season, when Harbaugh was hired as the Ravens' head coach.
"When you play an opponent that you don't know, there is a lot of ground work that you have to do, in terms of establishing how they set up their system and how they organize things," Harbaugh said. "Both teams have a pretty good idea, I'm sure, of how the other is organized. So, we're pretty far down the road with each other at this point."
During the Steelers' three-game winning streak, they are averaging 29 points a game. They've also picked up the pressure defensively under coordinator Dick LeBeau with 10 sacks and seven forced turnovers over the past three games.
"They're finding ways to win football games," said Ravens defensive end Chris Canty. "They're running with success. Ben Roethlisberger has got his mojo going again, so to speak, and they're playing complementary football. They're looking like the Pittsburgh Steelers of old. So, we're going to have our work cut out for us come Thursday."
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun