You didn’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens would play a meaningless Thanksgiving night game, did you? One of the AFC North archrivals will emerge from Thursday’s game continuing to make the rest of the conference nervous.
Both the Steelers (27-11 over the Browns) and Ravens (19-3 over the Jets) cruised to dominant defensive victories in Week 12, making their Week 13 matchup in Baltimore huge. The Jets and Dolphins both lost on Sunday, and the Titans and Chargers both won, so there’s now a massive 5-6 pileup in the crazy race for the AFC’s second wild-card playoff spot.
The obvious reason is that they are recent Super Bowl champions with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. But as we’ll see in another black and blue, hard-hitting affair coming off a short week, it’s the Steelers’ and Ravens’ sheer mental and physical toughness that are such huge assets at this time of the year.
Those other four teams in the mix? None has ever been there or done that with their current coach and quarterback combination. Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger have taken over with no-nonsense focus to restore the Steelers’ mettle. Flacco and John Harbaugh have been able to produce a playoff victory in all five seasons they have been together. The Steelers went into this difficult season 27-21 on the road with Tomlin; the Ravens have won six away playoff games under Harbaugh.
While Roethlisberger is in a groove carrying his offense, Flacco is about to get more help leading his (Dennis Pitta).
Given the steady success both franchises have had, they don’t just handle adversity; they look it in the face and push it back. The AFC North title belongs to the Bengals, but they of all teams will want to avoid playing the Steelers or Ravens a third time. The Broncos, Patriots and Colts are all aware what the Ravens can do – see last year’s playoffs.
Consider Thursday to be a de facto playoff game. The Steelers survive and they can get a key jump with three of their final four games at home. They also will have a sweep of the Ravens that puts the reigning champs on the brink. The Ravens win, and the Steelers will be a game behind with a lingering Week 1 loss to the Titans.
That’s the nature of former champs; until they get knocked out for good, they will keep showing fight. At least the rest of the AFC knows both the Ravens and Steelers won’t be in the playoffs. Just one is handful enough.