WHO: Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-2)
WHERE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m. EDT
The Ravens' most intense rivalry will be renewed in prime time at Heinz Field when the Ravens face the Pittsburgh Steelers. As usual when these teams meet, there are significant playoff implications: The Ravens hope to retain their grip on a playoff spot, while the Steelers can clinch the AFC North title with a win.
Since John Harbaugh became the Ravens head coach, these teams have split their 22 meetings. But the Steelers have won two in a row, including a 26-9 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 4 and a 31-27 win on Christmas last year, as Antonio Brown lunged over the goal line with nine seconds left for the game-winning score that knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention.
"This game's always awesome," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's a ton of fun to go play up there. We've played up there a bunch now, and the more you go up there the more you enjoy it and enjoy the atmosphere. It's a fun football game. It's a good old-fashioned football game that you love to be a part of."
Here are three key matchups to watch as the Ravens look for their fourth straight win, and the Steelers try to run their winning streak to eight:
1. Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown
All eyes will be on Humphrey, the first-round draft pick who figures to make his first career start in light of Jimmy Smith's season-ending Achilles injury. Humphrey was matched up with Brown a couple of times in Week 4 and held his own. He has had a strong rookie year but was beaten by Detroit Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones on a couple of deep balls last week after Smith's injury. "Marlon has a good mindset," Harbaugh said. "He's going to be tested. ... He's a very talented guy. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does. I think he'll do well."
Brown's numbers are well documented -- he leads the league with 88 catches for 1,296 yards and nine touchdowns. He will line up all over the field, but certainly the Steelers will try to isolate him on the rookie. Brown is dangerous after the catch, so tackling Brown after short passes is critical.
2. Ravens OLBs Matthew Judon, Terrell Suggs vs. Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell
The last time these teams met, Ravens linebackers struggled to set the edge against the run. Bell finished with 35 carries for 144 yards, doing much of his damage with counter runs to the outside. The Ravens need to set the edge against the run and drive Bell into the teeth of the Ravens' run defense, where a healthy Brandon Williams, emerging Willie Henry and others await. After the Week 4 game, Harbaugh said, "They got outside too many times, and that can't happen."
Bell is among the most patient runners in the league, with size and vision to go with it. He is a workhorse who leads the league in both carries (270) and rushing yards (1,057) and also has 66 catches out of the backfield for 502 yards, more than anyone on the Ravens. As with Brown, the Ravens need to wrap up Bell and limit his yardage after catches.
3. Ravens G James Hurst vs. Steelers DE Cameron Heyward
Hurst has held his own as the Ravens' starting left guard this season, and Harbaugh credited strong line play with giving Flacco enough time to work the downfield passing game last week against the Lions, when the Ravens produced a season-high 269 passing yards. There's no question the Ravens need to keep Flacco upright and run the ball to win at Heinz Field.
Heyward is having a Pro-Bowl type season for the Steelers, with nine of the Steelers' 40 sacks. Heyward's nine sacks are the third-most by a Steelers defensive lineman in a season. Heyward will line up in various spots along the Steelers' defensive front but figures to be squared off with Hurst often. When these teams met in Week 4, Heyward recorded a pair of sacks and forced and recovered a fumble.
Anyone expecting a lopsided game hasn't been paying attention to this rivalry. Eight of the past 13 games in this series, and three of the past five, have been decided by four points or less. Flacco has played some of his best games at Heinz Field and has gone 4-3 in his past seven games there. But the Steelers feature two of the game's premier offensive playmakers, and the Ravens will be without top cornerback Smith. The Ravens were 10 seconds away from winning at Heinz Field last year without him, and they'll come up just short again.
Steelers 23, Ravens 19