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Nine months later, most recent game against Steelers still on minds of proud Ravens defense

Nine months later, the play remains ingrained in the minds of the Ravens' returning defensive players. Even for guys such as safety Eric Weddle, who vowed not to watch it again because living it was painful enough, it's been unavoidable.

Antonio Brown's 4-yard touchdown reception with nine seconds remaining on Christmas Day secured the AFC North title for the Pittsburgh Steelers and eliminated the Ravens from postseason contention. Surrounded by four defenders and in the grasp of Weddle, Brown extended the ball into the end zone, giving the NFL one of its indelible images from the 2016 season.

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The game-winning score played over and over on highlight reels for months during the long offseason and is now featured on a commercial that runs regularly during prime-time NFL games.

"He got probably the perfect picture for his career, scoring a touchdown like that and every time I see the play, all I see is my gold shoe sticking in the air and him reaching over," Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "It definitely was a tough loss, especially with the way we worked all year to get down to that one play and lose it, and then playing the last game for nothing. We definitely don't want to put ourselves in that situation."

The Steelers and Ravens meet Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since Pittsburgh's pulsating 31-27 victory in December, and first place in the AFC North is again on the line. The reputation of a proud Ravens defense is as well.

A week after the Ravens allowed 44 points and offered little resistance against Blake Bortles and a lightly-regarded Jacksonville Jaguars offense, the defense's quest for redemption comes against a team that drove 75 yards on 10 plays in just 1:09 to put a final stake in the Ravens' playoff aspirations last December.

"Anytime your division rival knocks you out of the playoffs, it's going to linger with you for a long time, until you play them again," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said Wednesday. "The wound is still fresh. We're just looking forward to playing better."

For a little over three quarters last Christmas, the Ravens defense was at its best at hostile Heinz Field. It allowed just 10 points, picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice and mostly bottled up star running back Le'Veon Bell. But in a dizzying final 12 minutes, Roethlisberger directed three touchdown drives to deal the Ravens one of their most painful losses in the John Harbaugh era.

When Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome went about rebuilding his defense this offseason, he had the end of that Steelers game in mind. On that final, decisive drive, the Ravens couldn't get any pressure on Roethlisberger. And the patchwork cornerback group, not wanting to surrender a big play, gave the Steelers wide receivers so much cushion that a glorified game of pitch-and-catch broke out at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger completed eight of 10 passes on the drive and the only two incompletions were on spikes to stop the clock.

The defense's inability to close out games, a common theme during an 8-8 season, spurred the Ravens to add edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams early in the draft and overhaul the secondary — with the signings of cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Tony Jefferson, and the drafting of first-round pick Marlon Humphrey.

With better pieces in place, the refrain for defensive coordinator Dean Pees' group since the first day it got together has been to finish.

"Without a doubt, It's something that we talked about even at the beginning of the offseason," nose tackle Michael Pierce said. "Dean has a motto — we have to finish everything. That's something we didn't do last year and that's been on our minds and in our hearts all offseason. We improved our roster a lot, got a lot of great corners, shored up the D-line. We're ready for Sunday."

Said Weddle: "Obviously, the guys that have played in that game remember that vividly and being so close to reaching your goals and not getting it done. I'll tell you this: We've never forgotten that play, that game. We've made strides this offseason of building our team to get in that situation and win the game. When we get on the field on Sunday, our mind is to win the game and not hope to lose the game."

Jefferson, who was with the Arizona Cardinals last season, remembers watching the Ravens-Steelers game on television. He said he could immediately tell "how much sourness" is in the mouths of his new teammates from what happened last Christmas and he acknowledges that game has shaped the team's focus this season.

The Ravens defense was dominant in Week 1, holding the Cincinnati Bengals to 221 total yards, forcing five turnovers and sacking Andy Dalton four times. A week later, the Ravens battered Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, forcing five more turnovers and notching three more sacks.

Suddenly, the brash offseason talk from several Ravens about having a defense that would rival some of the best in the franchise's defense-rich history didn't seem far-fetched. Then, the Ravens went to London and were battered last Sunday by the Jaguars.

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Bortles was rarely touched in throwing four touchdown passes and leading the Jaguars to 44 points, the second most the Ravens have given up since 1998.

"Forty-four points?" safety Anthony Levine Sr. said aloud, as if he was still in disbelief. "That's absurd. We're the Ravens, and we play defense. So to have 44 points put up on us in whichever kind of fashion is unacceptable."

Suggs and Mosley were among the veterans who vowed this week that the defense wouldn't play that way again.

"We know last week's team wasn't us," Mosley said. "We looked at the film, we corrected what we have to correct and we moved on. I don't plan on nobody seeing that type of defense, and that type of Ravens team, anymore this season. For us, we know what we have to do. We know how to play the Steelers and what type of game it is for us and this conference. We just have to move on and be ready."

The Steelers come to Baltimore with one of the best collections of offensive talent in the league. Roethlisberger currently ranks ninth all time in passing yards. Bell had 1,884 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns in just 12 games last year. Brown has led the league in receptions in two of the previous three seasons and he's currently first with 26 catches this year. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who had 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons, is off suspension and has given the Steelers one more big-play threat.

Yet, the Steelers haven't hit their stride on offense. Through three games, the Steelers are 22nd in yards per game and 30th in rushing yards per game. During the week, Roethlisberger said the blame for the offense's uneven start should go on his shoulders.

Several Ravens chuckled at the comment, believing their longtime nemesis was trying to soften them up. Whether they are using last December's meeting as motivation or not, they need only to go back nine months for a reminder — a painful one at that — of how dangerous Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense can be when it is at its best.

"It has nothing to do with Week 15 last year. That year is over and done with," Pees said. "There are other years when we beat them. All those games mean absolutely nothing to me. It's a division game, we're at home and we need to be 3-1."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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