It isn't often that the Ravens and Steelers head into one of their divisional showdowns with a combined record that is well under .500 (4-7), but that doesn't alter the importance of Sunday's game at Heinz Field.
In fact, you could make the case that this week’s episode of “Survivor: AFC North” might be more important than the usual dogfight for the division lead. There certainly is a lot at stake for two teams that – so far – have had trouble getting out of their own way.
“I don’t think records are as important in this game from an intensity standpoint,’’said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin during Wednesday’s conference call with the Ravens media. “If nothing else, I think it heightens it. There’s a certain sense of urgency based on the position that the teams are in, I’m sure.”
The Steelers are 1-4 after finally getting into the win column with last week’s 19-9 victory over the New York Jets. The Ravens are situated a little better in second place at 3-3, but this begins a string of three straight games against their divisional opponents, which could have a huge impact on the playoff race.
Here’s why. The way the AFC North is stacking up in comparison to the other divisions, this might well be the first time since 2007 that it fails to send two or more teams into the playoffs. The Ravens are still positioned well enough to win the division, but they need to fix their running game and get the offensive attack back on track in a hurry to make sure they don’t give up any more ground to the first-place Bengals.
Sure, it’s way too early to be seriously sizing up the race, but it’s not too early to recognize that the Pittsburgh game could be a litmus test for the remainder of the season. Every week that the Ravens don’t show up in the first half and fail to establish an adequate run game is a bigger reason to wonder if they really are a work in progress – as John Harbaugh likes to say -- or simply aren’t configured well enough to get back to the playoffs.
For the Steelers, it’s almost a do-or-die game. They simply cannot afford to fall to 1-5, even in a division where no one has really stepped up to take control.
Of course, any game between the Ravens and Steelers is going to be very intense because of the ultra-competitive history of this rivalry. During the five previous years that Tomlin and Harbaugh have coached against each other, the Ravens and Steelers have finished in the top two spots in the division three times and combined to reach the postseason eight times.
The fact that the won-loss records don’t reflect that at the moment is even more reason why both teams should be highly motivated to remind each other who they really are, but quarterback Joe Flacco said Wednesday that it’s not that complicated. Everything the Ravens are hoping to accomplish this year is still in play.
“It’s still a division game and it’s still anybody’s division,’’ Flacco said. “It’s Week 7. It’s a division game, and if you go take care of business in the division, you give yourself a good chance at the end of the year to win.”
The Ravens have a terrific opportunity to do that over the next month, playing the Steelers, Browns and Bengals in succession with their bye week right after Sunday’s game, but they’re going to have to get some things figured out in a hurry to take full advantage of it.