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For Ravens, it all comes down to game against rival Steelers

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will emerge from the Heinz Field tunnel shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday and follow a path that he's taken so many times before. His jog will slow to a strut right around midfield as he makes his way toward the far end zone.

He'll take his helmet off and stand about 10 yards away from jeering Pittsburgh Steelers' fans who abhor him. Embracing his role as one of the villains in arguably the NFL's best rivalry, Suggs will smile and take it all in. He has faced the Steelers 27 times and now in his 14th season, he doesn't know how many more of these matchups he'll be able to take part in.

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What Suggs and his teammates do know is their last stand in an uneven 2016 regular season has to be made now. The Ravens (8-6) need to beat the archrival Steelers (9-5) Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field and likely beat the Cincinnati Bengals next week to capture their first AFC North title since 2012. If they don't win Sunday, the Ravens will be headed into another long and uncertain offseason having fallen short of the playoffs for the third time in four years.

"When we play them this late in the season, there's always high stakes. When you look at it, this is our season in a nutshell here," said Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta. "It means a lot. It's a must-win for us, certainly. It's a championship-type game and we're approaching it as such. This is what football is all about, especially in December."

Or as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin summed up this past week: "One game for the North title. If you can't get up for that, then you're a dead man."

The Ravens-Steelers' rivalry, which Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell compared to the Cold War, has helped decide the AFC North 10 times over the past 14 years, but never have the two teams met this late in the season with the division title hanging in the balance. While the Ravens will need to win their final two regular-season games, the Steelers would clinch another division title with a victory on their home field Sunday.

They'd also put a stop to the Ravens' recent dominance in the series. The Ravens have beaten the Steelers four consecutive times and also prevailed in six of the past seven matchups.

"They have our number," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said matter-of-factly. "We are just going to try to find a way to win the football game."

The Ravens ended the Steelers' 2014 season when they beat them, 30-17, at Heinz Field in the AFC wild-card round. Last season, they went to Pittsburgh in the midst of a 0-3 start, and knocked off the Steelers, 23-20, in overtime on Justin Tucker's 52-yard field goal.

However, the Ravens have won only three of 11 road games since, beating the Cleveland Browns last November and the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars this September. The combined record of the Browns and Jaguars this season is 2-26.

The Ravens' defense hasn't been nearly as stout as it has been at home, and the Joe Flacco-led offense has gotten off to far too many slow starts and made too many mistakes on the road.

"I don't care where we're playing at. We can play in the parking lot at Walmart for all I care," Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "It's got to go down regardless because this game has to be played. I feel good either way."

Wallace has seen the rivalry from both sides. He played his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers and was on the team that defeated the Ravens, 31-24, in the divisional playoff round following the 2010 season. He has also watched his new quarterback go into Heinz Field and beat his old team with late drives.

In the first matchup between the two teams at M&T Bank Stadium in November, Wallace and Flacco connected for a 95-yard touchdown pass in the Ravens' 21-14 victory. It marked the first time in the rivalry where the Ravens had beaten the Steelers four straight times.

"Nobody wants to be on the side where you've lost four [straight]," Wallace said. "I know for sure if it was the other way around, we'd be talking about it over here. Obviously, they don't want to talk about it. But it doesn't really matter who has won which ones. The only one that matters is on Sunday."

The Ravens still control their playoff fate despite losing four consecutive games in October, not winning a road contest in two months, dealing with a slew of key injuries over the season's first half and failing to develop any offensive consistency this season. The firing of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman on Oct.10 and the promotion of Marty Mornhinweg as his replacement has done little to fix an offense that struggles to consistently run the ball, make big plays down the field or avoid mistakes.

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The defense has been a strength, but in the last two games, it was gouged for 496 yards and 30 points by the AFC-best New England Patriots, and then nearly allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to erase a late 10-point lead at M&T Bank Stadium.

"We just have to go out and do what we've been doing in practice," said Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who has missed eight of the Ravens' 14 games because of a recovery from offseason foot surgery. "We've been practicing hard all year. We just have to focus on what we need to do, really tune out everything else and focus on football and beating the guy in front of you."

The Ravens say that some of their recent success against the Steelers is a result of keeping things simple. They focus on protecting Flacco, putting pressure on Roethlisberger and stopping explosive back Le'Veon Bell and star wide receiver Antonio Brown. They try not to put too much emphasis on the game, but that's been impossible this past week with so much on the line, and both the present and future ramifications so large.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti doesn't discuss team matters in-season, but missing the playoffs for the third time in four years certainly could lead to some change within the organization. It's believed that longtime head coach John Harbaugh has only one year left on his contract, so his long-term status will need to be addressed at some point soon. Mornhinweg hasn't distinguished himself as a play caller, meaning the Ravens will likely be searching for another offensive coordinator in the months ahead.

Their roster changes every year, and significant turnover is expected again this offseason. Always looking to get younger and create salary cap flexibility, the Ravens have decisions to make on a group of veterans that includes Pitta, Dumervil, Lardarius Webb, Benjamin Watson, Shareece Wright and Jeremy Zuttah.

Their list of unrestricted free agents includes starters Kyle Juszczyk, Steve Smith Sr., Rick Wagner, Vladimir Ducasse, Lawrence Guy and Brandon Williams, and reserves Ryan Mallett, Kamar Aiken, Jerraud Powers, Matt Elam and Anthony Levine Sr. Smith, though, is expected to strongly consider retiring.

"I just try and be in the moment, try not to think too far ahead," said Smith. "I try not to think this game more than it already is, which is a lot. You just try and narrow your focus, make it play-by-play, day-by-day, game-by-game."

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Smith added some levity to what was a tense week at the Ravens' facility by wearing an elf costume to his Wednesday news conference. Meanwhile, Suggs, who has provided plenty of sound bites about the Steelers over the years, made no declarations this week, opting instead to focus on game preparation.

For Suggs and his teammates, the stakes couldn't be any higher.

"It will feel like Christmas if we win," Wallace said. "That would be a big gift. But we're not even going to think about the other part."

Rocky road

The Ravens have had some success at Heinz Field over the years, but their latest trip comes at a time where they've dropped four consecutive road games. Their only two road wins this season are against the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, teams with a combined record of 2-26.

Home (eight games); Road (six games)

Record; 6-2; 2-4;

Points per game; 22.9; 20.5;

Points allowed per game; 14.8; 24.2;

Net yards per game; 355.4; 336.2;

Net yards allowed per game; 260.3; 382.5;

Passing yards per game; 248.8; 266.8;

Passing yards allowed per game; 191.4; 282.7;

Rushing yards per game; 106.6; 69.3;

Rushing yards allowed per game; 68.9; 99.8;

Joe Flacco's quarterback rating; 91.8; 75.8;

Sacks (for/against); 15/19; 15/9;

Turnover margin (gave up/forced); 10/13; 9/13;

Penalties per game; 8; 9;

The greatest hits

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry will add another chapter Sunday when the two teams meet with the AFC North title hanging in the balance. Below are 10 of the most memorable matchups during the John Harbaugh-Mike Tomlin era:

Date, location; Result; Key play;

Dec.14, 2008, at Balt.; Steelers, 13-9; Santonio Holmes' controversial 4-yard touchdown catch with 43 seconds left helped the Steelers capture the division.;

*Jan.18, 2009, at Pitt.; Steelers, 27-10; Troy Polamalu's 40-yard interception return for touchdown puts the Ravens away, sends Pittsburgh to Super Bowl.;

Nov.29, 2009; at Balt.; Ravens, 20-17, OT; Paul Kruger's interception gives Billy Cundiff the opportunity to make a 29-yard field goal in overtime.;

Oct.3, 2010, at Pitt.; Ravens, 17-14; Joe Flacco hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for an 18-yard touchdown with 34 seconds to go as the Ravens silenced Heinz Field.;

Dec.5, 2010, at Balt.; Steelers, 13-10; Polamalu again made the game-changing play, strip sacking Flacco and setting up Isaac Redman's game-winning score.;

**Jan.15, 2011, at Pitt.; Steelers, 31-24; A 58-yard Antonio Brown catch puts Rashard Mendenhall in position for a late tie-breaking touchdown run.;

Nov.6, 2011, at Pitt.; Ravens, 23-20; Torrey Smith's 26-yard touchdown catch with eight seconds left completes first Ravens sweep of Steelers since 2006.;

Nov.18, 2012, at Pitt.; Ravens, 13-10; Jacoby Jones set the stage for his dynamic postseason with a 63-yard punt return for the Ravens' only score.;

Nov.2, 2014, at Pitt.; Steelers, 43-23; Ben Roethlisberger hits Martavis Bryant for the second of his six touchdown passes as Pittsburgh embarrasses the Ravens.;

***Jan.3, 2015, at Pitt.; Ravens, 30-17; Terrell Suggs' cradles an interception between his legs, setting up Crockett Gillmore's touchdown catch.;

Note: *-AFC championship game; **- Divisional playoff game; ***-Wild-card playoff game.

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