There's more at stake than bragging rights when the Ravens play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
The prime-time collision between the Ravens (8-3) and Steelers (8-3) should go a long way in determining the champion of the AFC North and the playoff seedings in the AFC.
If the Ravens sweep Pittsburgh for the second time in their history, they would have a stranglehold on the division and one of the top spots in the AFC. They essentially would have a two-game lead on the Steelers with four games remaining (the Ravens would hold the tiebreaker advantage if they finished with the same record as Pittsburgh).
If the Ravens lose to their division rival, they would lose control of the AFC North, a No.2 seed and their playoff fate. The Ravens not only would drop a game behind the Steelers in the standings, but they also would have a worse record in the division (the Ravens lost to the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this season).
"This is a game that we gotta have," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said, "and Pittsburgh's thinking the same thing."
The AFC North champion will likely earn one of the top two seeds in the conference, while the runner-up should end up with a wild-card spot.
So, Sunday's grudge match could help determine whether the Ravens receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs (and play host to a divisional playoff game) or start the postseason on the road.
"It doesn't get any better," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You go around the NFL, you go around the AFC and you see where we're sitting at right now. We're in the perfect position. We control our own destiny."
The Ravens can't afford to let the Steelers get the upper hand heading into the last quarter of the regular season because of Pittsburgh's favorable schedule. After Sunday's game at M&T; Bank Stadium, the Steelers have one more road game (at Cleveland) and one more game against a team with a winning record (the New York Jets).
The Ravens' final games are slightly more difficult: at Houston (5-6), vs. New Orleans (8-3), at Cleveland (4-7) and vs. Cincinnati (2-9).
"You don't want to miss that one," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "This is going to be a heavyweight fight, champs for our division."
The Ravens are 1-4 in games in which they could sweep the Steelers.
The only time the Ravens have beaten Pittsburgh twice in a season was in 2006, when the Ravens finished with a No.2 seed and the best record in team history. The Ravens won the first meeting with the Steelers four other times (in 2000, 20001, 2004 and 2009) but failed to sweep them.
It was two months ago that quarterback Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a 17-14 comeback victory at Pittsburgh by throwing an 18-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds left.
"This is one, I guarantee you, that they couldn't wait for because we beat them earlier," Mason said. "They probably circled this one on their calendar. We circled it on ours as well."
There's little margin for error because these showdowns between the Ravens and the Steelers are usually close. The past five meetings have been decided by four points or fewer.
"They're our archrival, and I don't know what more you need to say than that," coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a very intense game. It's a very physical game. It's a little bit different than the other games we play. We love playing them. We look forward to it. We can't wait to line up."
The AFC playoff picture will come into focus by the end of this week's games. After the Ravens play the Steelers, the Jets (9-2) will play at New England (9-2) on Monday night.
"This is probably the biggest week in football," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "So everybody's going to be tuned in."
RAVENS: vs. Pittsburgh (8-3), at Houston (5-6), vs. New Orleans (8-3), at Cleveland (4-7) and vs. Cincinnati (2-9)
PITTSBURGH: at Ravens (8-3), vs. Cincinnati (2-9), vs. N.Y. Jets (9-2), vs. Carolina (1-10) and at Cleveland (4-7)