It didn't seem like it would come to this in October, when the Ravens lost four straight games, or in November, when the Pittsburgh Steelers had a four-game losing streak of their own. For a brief moment Sunday after the Philadelphia Eagles had scored a late touchdown and were lining up for the potential game-winning two-point conversion, the Ravens' trip to Pittsburgh on Sunday looked as if it might represent little more than the visitors playing out the string.
But as several Ravens noted in the locker room following the 27-26 victory over the Eagles, this is exactly how it was meant to be: two long-time arrivals meeting in late December with an AFC North title hanging in the balance.
"We can have fun right now, but at the end of the day, it's all on the line," Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We wouldn't want it any other way. Winner take all, everybody show up. We'll show up."
Reclaiming the AFC North title was one of the Ravens' primary goals this season and it's now within their grasp. A victory over the Steelers on Christmas at Heinz Field and a win over the host Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17 would give the Ravens (8-6) their first division championship since the 2012 season.
However, a loss to the Steelers (9-5) on Sunday and the Ravens will have to endure the indignity of their biggest rival celebrating a division title at their expense. The Ravens, then, would need to beat the Bengals in the regular-season finale and then have other scenarios go their way — the Miami Dolphins (9-5) losing their final two games and the Denver Broncos (8-6) losing one of their final two — to make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
It's possible that by the time the ball is kicked off at Heinz Field on Sunday at 4:30 p.m., the Ravens will be in a situation in which they have to win to go onto Week 17 with any playoff hopes. The Dolphins play at Buffalo on Saturday, and a Dolphins' victory would knock the Ravens out of the wild-card race.
At that point, it could be division or bust.
"The situation that we find ourselves in is something that we've been working really hard for since all the way back in April when we first got here through the course of the season," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "Our guys have been fighting like crazy to get to the point where they have an opportunity to go to Pittsburgh … and onto Cincinnati to try and win a division championship. They've earned the right to do that and we're fired up about it. We can't wait to go play the game."
The Ravens have played the Steelers three times in the playoffs in the Harbaugh era, but this is the latest they've met in the regular season with a division title still at stake. When the NFL schedule was released in April and the Ravens saw regular-season matchups against the Steelers and Bengals to close their slate, they wanted to make sure the two games had great significance.
Despite the four straight losses in October, the disappointing performance earlier this month against the New England Patriots and the huge scare Sunday from the Eagles, they've done just that.
"That was the goal. Definitely, that was the goal. When you saw the schedule come out, the goal was for those two games to be meaningful, for them to matter for the division championship," Harbaugh said. "However way it goes, there's a lot that goes into it for you to be able to do that. That was the idea. Personally, I'm very excited to be in this position. I believe our players are, too."
The Ravens enter the game having beaten the Steelers four straight times and in six of the past seven matchups. Included in that stretch was a 21-14 victory at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 6 in a game in which the Ravens smothered quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers' high-flying passing attack. That win, coupled by another victory Sunday, would give the Ravens the head-to-head tiebreak over Pittsburgh if the two teams finish tied for the division lead.
But that first game will only matter if the Ravens win and reverse a troubling trend of road struggles. Since beating the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 25, the Ravens have dropped four straight road games. Their only two road victories this season are against the Cleveland Browns and Jaguars, teams with combined records of 2-16.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has won five straight games, outscoring its opponents 127-70. At Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, the Steelers trailed the Bengals, 20-6, late in the second quarter before they ran off 18 consecutive points to win 24-20 and officially knock Cincinnati out of postseason contention.
"Well, we put ourselves in a great scenario — they did too," said Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who made the decisive play in the victory over the Eagles by getting a hand on Carson Wentz's 2-point conversion pass attempt to Jordan Matthews. "We know what they're going to do. They know what we're going to do. Obviously, they're going to scheme up some stuff, and we're going to do the same, but at the end of the day, it's Pittsburgh versus the Ravens. So, we know it's going to be four quarters. We've just got to get ready."
That process began as early as late Sunday afternoon. Before he left the Ravens' locker room, left guard Marshal Yanda declared "all eyes are on Pittsburgh." The Ravens' players were off Monday, but they'll return to the team facility today with all their goals still attainable and a familiar opponent standing in their way.
"It's kind of looked this way for a while, and obviously we had to take care of business and do our thing," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said following Sunday's game. "I'm sure it's what everybody wants, and we're up for the challenge. It's going to be a fun day, going in there on Christmas, into Pittsburgh, into that environment. It'll be a pretty cool place to go."