The Ravens have won nine football games in 22 months, a hugely disappointing stretch for a franchise that once made qualifying for the postseason look routine. During that span, the losses have mounted almost as quickly as the injuries, the Ravens' aura of invincibility at home was shattered, and their franchise quarterback has been hurt and humbled.
But amid all the folly and frustration, there were three days when everything felt right for the Ravens, when their flaws weren't exposed and their record barely mattered.
In January 2015, they went to Heinz Field and beat their archival Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round. Nine months later, they again knocked off the Steelers in Pittsburgh to avoid an 0-4 start. And in December with quarterback Joe Flacco and many other key starters out, Ryan Mallett led the Ravens to an upset victory over a Pittsburgh team that made the playoffs.
The Ravens, who beat the Steelers just twice in eight games during John Harbaugh's first three seasons, now have topped Pittsburgh for three of their past nine total wins dating to the 2014 playoffs.
"It's just what we do," Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams said. "We feel like we are built to beat the Steelers."
Once tormented by Pittsburgh, the Ravens have beaten the Steelers in three straight games, five of the past six and in eight of the past 11. The Ravens (3-4) hope to continue that success — and break a four-game losing streak — Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium in a game that will be more about saving their season than trying to prove a point to their biggest rival.
A win over the Steelers (4-3) will put the Ravens in first place in the AFC North. A loss and the Ravens' path to the playoffs will get more challenging.
"This is not an ideal situation to go into it, especially against a team like this. It's not going to make or break our season, but we obviously have to have this win," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said Wednesday. "It's more of a desperate situation in my mind for our team to make sure we get a win."
Smith joked with teammates Wednesday, took a cell phone picture of himself and then interrupted teammate Terrell Suggs' news conference. Suggs was loose as well, chiding reporters for suggesting that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not play Sunday because of a knee injury — "he is going to walk his big [butt] on out there," Suggs said — and speaking almost reverentially about what the Ravens-Steelers rivalry has meant to his career.
Suggs had just finished counseling his younger teammates about what to expect Sunday, a common practice among Ravens veterans this week.
"They have to know if they are not ready, then they are going to go out there and get their shirt wrinkled, as we would say back home," Suggs said. "You do not want to get punched in the mouth. You are going to fight a kid that pretty much has the same identity as you. You better know your opponent; you better know you are in for a dogfight for four quarters."
If the Ravens were feeling the heat this week, it didn't show. While Harbaugh remained tight-lipped and businesslike, the players were as loose as they've been in weeks. It was the latest example of the Steelers bringing out the best in the Ravens.
"It's my favorite game of the year for obvious reasons — opponent, standouts, battle for first place," said Smith, who is expected to draw the assignment of Steelers standout receiver Antonio Brown. "There's a lot on the line besides the uniqueness of our rivalry."
Said tight end Dennis Pitta: "I think it comes at a good time. It really makes us focus in and not wallow in the fact that we've lost four straight. This is Steelers week. No matter what else happens in this season, this is going to require all of our focus and attention. That certainly will help us, and getting a win in a game like this would hopefully jump-start us and get us rolling again."
There was plenty of talk this past week that the rivalry is not what it once was when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed led the Ravens defense, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward propelled the Steelers offense, and head coaches Bill Cowher and Brian Billick paced their respective sidelines.
The personalities in the game surely have changed. Pittsburgh's feud with the Cincinnati Bengals has gotten more attention the past two seasons. The Ravens' struggles since upending the Steelers in the 2014 playoffs have certainly lessened the hype of the regular-season matchups. Both teams, however, still share similar feelings for each other.
Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace, who started his career with the Steelers, described it as "respect, but it's a lot of hate." Cowher prefers calling it a "genuine dislike."
"That's the best way I always talked about it," said Cowher, now an analyst for CBS' pregame show, The NFL Today. "There's absolute respect on both sides, but I think it's one that has been known far back for its physicality from each team. I think it stems from two teams that were really the top two teams in the division, and when a game has significance like that, I think it takes the level of play to another level."
While the Ravens' situation is more dire, the Steelers have also lost two straight games, preventing them from building a comfortable lead in the division. The sense of urgency seems obvious with the number of players returning for each team.
The Ravens are expected to get back Suggs, right guard Marshal Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, middle linebacker C.J. Mosley and possibly wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. from multi-week injuries. Roethlisberger is expected to play less than three weeks after having knee surgery, and the Steelers will also welcome back offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert and standout defensive end Cameron Heyward.
"We respect what they are capable of. We don't overanalyze the position that they are in," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We have a matchup history with them that is highly documented. We have been in a lot of close football games with these guys. It is at their place; it is a division game. Those are the things that kind of encompass our focus."
Unsurprisingly, Tomlin had little interest in discussing past meetings and Brown was quick to point out that this is a different year.
"There is no revenge or anything," Brown said.
During a meeting this past week, Tomlin showed his players a graphic that revealed how few points have decided many of the games in the rivalry. Eleven of the 16 matchups since the end of the 2008 season, Harbaugh's first with the Ravens, have been decided by three points or fewer.
Early on, it was the Steelers winning most of those games — "There was a time here where we couldn't get over that Steeler hump," Suggs said — but the Ravens have switched the script the past couple of years. They've been the team that has made the key defensive stand or caused the big turnover. They've benefited from clutch Flacco throws and Justin Tucker field goals. They've beaten the Steelers at home and on the road. They've won with a backup quarterback and a roster depleted by injuries.
Their 2016 season might depend on them finding a way to do it again Sunday.
"It's a big week," Harbaugh said. "I'm really not into describing the rivalry, in all honesty. We've done that many times over the years. I think everybody understands it. It's a great rivalry. It's a great game. It's an important game, and it'll be a great football game on Sunday."
GETTING THE UPPER HAND
The Steelers got the better of the Ravens in the early stages of John Harbaugh's tenure, winning six of eight meetings from 2008 to 2010. But that has shifted in recent seasons and the Ravens enter Sunday's game having won five of the past six, and eight of the past 11 meetings against their biggest rival.
Date; Location; Final score; Key play;
Sept.11, 2011; Baltimore; Ravens, 35-7; Haloti Ngata forces one of a team-record seven turnovers on first play of third quarter, leading to a touchdown and a Ravens' rout.
Nov. 6, 2011; Pittsburgh; Ravens, 23-20; Torrey Smith caught a 26-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left as the Ravens swept the Steelers for the first time since 2006.
Nov.18, 2012; Pittsburgh; Ravens, 13-10; Jacoby Jones scored the Ravens' only touchdown with a 63-yard punt return score in the second quarter.
Oct. 20, 2013; Pittsburgh, Steelers 19-16; Set up by a nice Emmanuel Sanders return, Suisham again beat the Ravens with a 42-yard field goal with no time on the clock.
Nov. 28, 2013; Baltimore; Ravens, 22-20; Justin Tucker kicked five field goals, but it was Sanders' drop of a two-point conversion pass that allowed Ravens to hold on.
Sept.11, 2014; Baltimore; Ravens, 26-6; Joe Flacco's second touchdown pass to tight end Owen Daniels late in the third quarter gave the Ravens a commanding lead.
Nov. 2, 2014; Pittsburgh; Steelers, 43-23; Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes, including a 54-yard score to Antonio Brown early in the third quarter.
Jan. 3, 2015; Pittsburgh; Ravens, 30-17; Terrell Suggs' between-the-legs interception set up a Crockett Gillmore touchdown in the Ravens' AFC wild-card round win.
Oct.1, 2015; Pittsburgh; Ravens, 23-20, OT; Two fourth-quarter fourth-down stops and two Josh Scobee misses set up Tucker for the tying field goal and 52-yard game winner.
Dec. 27, 2015; Baltimore; Ravens, 20-17; Starting in place of an injured Flacco, Ryan Mallett hit Chris Matthews for an 8-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.