Face it, Ravens fans, you knew it would come down to this

Pittsburgh game a litmus test for Baltimore's playoff future

December 24, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

Just when you thought it was safe to start feeling sorry for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger pulled off one of the great last-minute comeback drives to defeat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday and keep hope alive for a wild-card playoff berth.

So, the Ravens won't be going to Heinz Field this weekend just to kick their reeling rival while the Steelers are about as down as they've been in several years. Big Ben revived his team's fading playoffs prospects just enough to make for another typical bare-knuckle Ravens-Steelers donnybrook.

It's not the sudden-death showdown some would have you believe. The Steelers must win to stay alive in the playoff hunt, but they can't displace the Ravens with a victory. In fact, they probably can't make the playoffs unless the Ravens get there ahead of them.

The Ravens already have beaten them this season, so a Steelers victory Sunday would give them equal won-lost records (with one game to go) and no head-to-head advantage for either team. If it came down to the two of them for the final wild-card berth, the Ravens would own the tiebreakers with the better division and conference records.

Mind you, this all presupposes that the Ravens go on to defeat the Oakland Raiders in their final regular-season game. If they don't take care of that little piece of business, they don't belong in the playoffs. But they could remove a ton of suspense by sweeping the home-and-home series with the Steelers.

The AFC playoff picture is still so murky that the only thing that's knowable is that the Ravens and Denver Broncos can assure themselves of a place in the postseason by winning both of their remaining games. If they don't, there are six teams in the conference with 7-7 records who still have a mathematical chance to sneak in as a wild card.

According to the oddsmakers, it will get murkier this weekend, because the Ravens and Broncos are listed as underdogs and only two of the 7-7 teams (not counting the Steelers) are favorites.

Ravens fans might have been able to breathe a little easier if Roethlisberger had not thrown that perfect touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace with all zeros left on the game clock. It certainly would have altered the emotional equation for Sunday's game. But it still would have been the Ravens and the Steelers, so it's not like the Pittsburgh fans would have packed away their silly washcloths for the winter.

What this game has become is a litmus test for the Ravens as they head - they hope - into the postseason. Barring a freakish collapse by the first-place Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens would spend the playoffs on the road as they did last year, except that they have done little since their early-season victory in San Diego to prove they can win a big game outside M&T Bank Stadium.

They put up a good fight in New England and came within a missed field-goal try of staging a miraculous comeback against the Minnesota Vikings, but they are 1-4 on the road this season against contending teams. It would mean quite a lot - on a lot of levels - to deliver a knockout punch to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

It would certainly help with Baltimore's civic self-esteem after the Steelers beat the Ravens three times last season, including the victory in the AFC championship game that kept John Harbaugh from reaching the Super Bowl in his rookie season as head coach.

It would also come pretty close to locking up Harbaugh's second straight trip to the postseason, though you can't take the Raiders for granted anymore.

Whatever happens, the season is going to go down to the final week, but that doesn't really change anything, does it?

We're talking about the Steelers here. It's going to be another headbangers' ball with a lot on the line for both teams.

If you're a Ravens fan, Heinz Field always seems to be at the intersection of your greatest hopes and your greatest fears. When you broke down the schedule back in August, you knew it would come to this.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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