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13 Ravens opponents in 13 days: Pittsburgh Steelers

In eager anticipation of the 2013 NFL season, Baltimore Sun blogger and reporter Matt Vensel will take a daily look at one of the 13 opponents on the Ravens’ regular-season schedule. Today is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is the NFL's best and hardest-hitting rivalry. No introductions are required, just dates and locations. The Ravens travel to Pittsburgh in Week 7. In Week 13, the Steelers come to Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, a game that millions of groggy Americans will be looking forward to. That, and pumpkin pie. But mostly pigskin.

Recapping 2012: The Steelers finished the season with a disappointing, by their standards, 8-8 record, but let's not forget they were in position to pull even with the Ravens in Week 11. But they were without oft-injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Ravens beat them by a field goal to take control of the division for good. The Steelers lost five of their final seven games and missed the playoffs. The defense was one of the NFL's stingiest, ranking sixth in points against, but the Steelers didn’t produce as many sacks and turnovers as they are used to. The inconsistent offense ranked just 22nd in scoring and the Steelers were 26th in rushing.

Cha-cha-changes: The cap-strapped Steelers endured a difficult offseason. With limited financial flexibility, they released outside linebacker James Harrison and lost wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall in free agency. Their only notable free-agent addition -- and it’s notable because of Roethlisberger’s annual injuries -- was backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. The Steelers drafted nine players in April, led by Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and big Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell.

The skinny: Many national analysts feel the championship window is closing on the Steelers, if it hasn’t slammed shut already. The defense is another year older -- most notably safety Troy Polamalu -- but at least the Steelers have parted ways with aging veterans in Harrison and nose tackle Casey Hampton. The offense has experienced a significant amount of turnover at the skill positions. But if Roethlisberger, who is in his second year in coordinator Todd Haley’s offense, can stay healthy -- yes, I know that’s big if -- the Steelers will still be a threat to win the AFC North.

Recent history: Over the past five years, no rivalry in the NFL has been fiercer. The two teams have split their past 10 regular-season meetings, eight of which were decided by three points. The Ravens, who have won back-to-back AFC North titles, have won three of the past four games. But each team earned a road win against their rival last season. Jacoby Jones' punt return for a touchdown gave the Ravens a 13-10 win in Week 11. Charlie Batch rallied the Steelers to a 23-20 win two weeks later.

Degree of difficulty: As we have seen over the years, the Ravens and Steelers come to play for these rivalry games, no matter who is on the roster or what the teams’ records are. There is no reason to believe this season will be any different. I’ll say the degree of difficulty for winning at Heinz Field in Week 7 is eight of 10. At M&T; Bank Stadium on Turkey Day, it will be slightly less at 7.5 out 10.

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