PITTSBURGH - Don't expect these two teams to gather tomorrow evening at M&T Bank Stadium's midfield for an exchange of holiday presents.
Rather, the only thing the Pittsburgh Steelers want to hand the Ravens is a gift that keeps on giving through January: a seat on the living-room sofa for the entire postseason.
It's a seat the Steelers already have.
Said Steelers receiver Hines Ward of tomorrow night's game between the defending two-time champion and the potential 2003 AFC North champion, "If we're not going to be there [in the playoffs], why not take Baltimore out of it, too?"
In the moments after the Steelers' 41-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field last Sunday, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher was asked whether he relished the role his team could play in deciding the division championship, which would go to the Ravens (9-6) with a victory or to the Cincinnati Bengals with a win over the Cleveland Browns and a Ravens loss. Cowher's answer: "Lovin' it. It's our playoff game."
While the coach of the Steelers (6-9) later retreated from any notion that his team was out to win Sunday for former Steelers defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and the Bengals (8-7), Cowher's players continued to rally around that extra benefit.
Linebacker Joey Porter supposedly even telephoned the Bengals' Adrian Ross with a simple guarantee: We'll do our part.
"I'd love to see Marvin and those guys go over the Ravens," Ward said. "I'd like to see that happen."
Funny, but isn't this precisely the scenario that Ravens coach Brian Billick predicted four months ago? That this end-of-season collision between bitter divisional rivals would settle the North championship and subsequent playoff berth?
"He was right," Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress said. "I guess he was a visionary.
"But we're not the one going into the game with the playoffs on the line. What a better team to play to go to the playoffs than us. If they don't win, they don't deserve to go. But I don't see them beating us. I've never lost down there [in his three previous visits]. I don't plan on starting Sunday."
As if Steelers-Ravens needed any more oomph, any more subtext.
Already, they were two teams with what Cowher termed "a genuine dislike for one another."
Ward took it a step further: "I don't think anybody likes Baltimore, period."
Yet their history suggests that everyone should expect considerable trash talking and posturing ... and that's merely in the pre-game warm-ups.
If you recall, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the then-ailing Porter - inactive due to a gunshot wound - got embroiled in an exchange of words both before the game and later in the bus area at Heinz Field, after the Steelers' 34-15 triumph in the season opener.
There also was the incident with James Trapp stepping on Burress' head a year ago, resulting in fines on both sides.
"It's just one of those games that guys get fired up," Burress said. "They think they're the bully on the block, and we still think we're the bully on the block. Even though we haven't had the season we wanted to have, we still think we're the most physical team in the division - until they beat us and go to the playoffs. It's a playoff game for them, too."
And if Billick wants to run Jamal Lewis all night long, in an attempt to get him the 154 yards he needs to set the NFL single-season rushing record, that seems fine with the Steelers.
"Run Jamal every play, please," defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said of the running back who gained 69 yards on 15 carries against the Steelers, his second-lowest rushing performance this season, after netting 68 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We're just here to win the football game.
"If you're not going to stop Jamal, then you're not going to win the game. Or your chances are slim. We've known for a while how good Jamal is. So it's especially special that we stop him."
Next for Ravens
Matchup:Ravens (9-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-9)
Site:M&T Bank Stadium
When:Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.
TV/Radio:Ch. 13, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line:Ravens by 7 1/2