A season that has tested the Ravens in every conceivable way still isn't finished providing challenges. The one the team faces Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, might eclipse them all.
It's bad enough for the Ravens (4-10) that they have long been eliminated from playoff contention and are playing out the string with a depleted roster. But on Sunday, their biggest rival arrives at M&T Bank Stadium with the potential to clinch a postseason berth, and they'll likely get to do it in front of many of their traveling fans.
If there is a nightmare scene for anyone associated with the Ravens, Sunday has the potential to be it.
"We understand that they're coming in here with a lot at stake and I'm sure a lot of their fans are going to be trying to get in the stadium as well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. "I'm sure our fans will be up to the challenge as well. We're looking forward to it. We're going to treat it like always, like we always do with Pittsburgh, and we'll be ready to play."
The latest game in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry could be relatively anticlimactic, especially when you consider how much potential the late-season matchup once held. When the league released the schedule in April, there figured to be an AFC North title on the line at this point, or at the very least, a postseason berth.
But not this year, not for the Ravens. The Steelers, however, could clinch an AFC wild-card spot with a victory Sunday, coupled by a New York Jets loss to the New England Patriots. About the only thing that the Ravens could gain with a win is some satisfaction in making Pittsburgh's road to the playoffs a little more difficult.
The NFL recognized the diminished stakes, flexing the game off of prime time, and moving it to a 1 p.m. kickoff. Even though Ravens-Steelers is considered one of the league's most heated and hard-hitting rivalries, the two teams' drastically different places in the AFC standings is impossible to ignore.
"We're going to keep playing; we're not going to back down," defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said after Sunday's 34-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. "They're going to have to take it from us; they're not coming in here and just beating us. We're going to get ready to fight."
Tough talk, however, isn't going to help the Ravens against one of the league's hottest teams. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 23-20, in overtime at Heinz Field on Oct. 1. Their season, though, did not progress much from there.
That Ravens team had Joe Flacco at quarterback, Justin Forsett at running back, Steve Smith Sr. at wide receiver and Jeremy Zuttah at center. None of those four players will be in action Sunday, while Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, will be. Roethlisberger missed the October game with a knee injury, and a Mike Vick-led offense could only muster 263 net yards against a vulnerable Ravens defense.
Roethlisberger is back and directing an offense that has scored 30 or more points in six straight games, five of them victories. Roethlisberger is throwing for a league-leading 337 yards per game. Antonio Brown leads the league with 1,586 receiving yards and is second to Atlanta's Julio Jones with 116 receptions. The Steelers also have a host of other weapons, from running back DeAngelo Williams to wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
It's a scary proposition for a Ravens team that has been outscored, 69-20, in consecutive home losses.
"That's a massive challenge, obviously, because Pittsburgh is built on the big plays," Harbaugh said. "They're not the kind of team that has to be methodical. The Chiefs were a methodical football team. The Steelers are completely different. It's almost like they don't try to drive the ball down the field. They're just looking for big plays. They're driving the ball down the field in one shot, and Ben is one of the best ever at doing that. And then they've got weapons everywhere, every single position."
Thirteen of the past 16 regular-season games between the two teams have been decided by six points or fewer. However, the Ravens will enter this matchup as heavy underdogs.
The Steelers are peaking, having won three consecutive games against three of the AFC's most highly-regarded teams heading into the year: the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. The Steelers outscored those three teams by a combined 55 points.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have lost three in a row, and they're two season-ending losses to the Steelers and Bengals away from tying the franchise-record with 12 regular-season defeats, set by the inaugural 1996 team. They also hold the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, which would be the lowest the Ravens have ever selected.
"We're looking to the future, but the future is now," Harbaugh said. "The future is this week against Pittsburgh, and we're going to see how well we can play."
Top tight end Crockett Gillmore was put on injured reserve Monday and top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who would likely shadow the Steelers' Brown if he was healthy, could be in jeopardy of missing the game with a hamstring injury. Harbaugh even acknowledged that he's not sure who he'll play at quarterback Sunday between Jimmy Clausen, Matt Schaub and Ryan Mallett.
The players, however, on Sunday acted is if none of that will matter, for the simple fact that the Steelers are coming to town.
"It's rivalry week, so we don't care what our record is, we definitely want this one," rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil said Sunday. "That's what we'll be working on this week."