There will come a moment in the course of today's showdown between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers when it will all be crystal clear.
We'll find out if the Ravens are fit to be tied for the division lead at the quarter pole or forced to play catch-up with the Steelers and probably the Cincinnati Bengals, and that will be a fairly important distinction even at this early stage in the season.
That's why, if you're a Ravens fan, you woke up every day over the past week with the same conflicted feeling — a mixture of great anticipation and high anxiety — that will only be resolved when Joe Flacco hits Anquon Boldin with a game-winning touchdown pass or Troy Polumalu snatches it out of the air at the last minute to save another Steelers victory.
It will come down to that or some similar competitive dichotomy. Ray Rice will break a big run or Charlie Batch will snap off a long pass. Rashard Mendenhall will pulverize the Ravens' defense the way Peyton Hillis did last week or T.J. Houshmandzadeh will remember how much he liked cleaning his cleats with a Terrible Towel after scoring a touchdown in a Bengals victory in Pittsburgh a few years ago. Billy Cundiff in overtime or Jeff Reed?
Flip a coin.
The oddsmakers originally posted the Steelers as a very slight favorite, which should tell you a lot about the way this game probably will play out but very little about how it will end.
The Steelers are 3-0 and off to that surprisingly impressive start without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They're playing at Heinz Field, which should be worth a few points in the betting line. And they're not even favored by a field goal over a team that hasn't scored more than 10 points against anybody but the Cleveland Browns.
Everybody knows the game is going to be a serious head-banger that will probably be decided by one score, but you'll just have to wait for that magic or tragic moment to find out what this Ravens team is really made of.
Here's what we do know. This game is much more important to the Ravens than it is to the Steelers, so you can disregard what they're saying at the conventional wisdom convention about every game being a big game in the NFL or how the win last week over the Browns will end up being just as important as a win this week in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers aren't the team that has to fret about their place in the divisional pecking order. They don't already have a loss to last year's division champion. They don't need to prove they can score against a quality opponent. In fact, they've built the highest positive point differential in the NFL (+39) without their starting quarterback.
If anybody had told them a month ago that they might be 3-1 at the end of the Roethlisberger suspension, I'm pretty sure they would have ordered a cake.
The stakes are a little higher on this side of the line of scrimmage. This game has been in bold face on the Ravens' dance card since Big Ben's enforced vacation was announced. The surprising success of the Steelers without him has only made it that much more important as a measure of the Ravens' legitimacy as a Super Bowl contender.
The first three games of the regular season created only doubts about their worthiness. Flacco was shaky against the Jets and the Bengals. The defense allowed Hillis to rumble for 144 yards and a touchdown last week. Losing to the Steelers and their third-string QB certainly wouldn't remove the Ravens from playoff consideration — far from it — but it would call into further question whether they are truly an elite team.
Conversely, beating the Steelers — even the de-fanged Steelers — would be a huge emotional boost for a team that is trying to weather the toughest six-game stretch of the season. The Ravens also would have happily signed a contract to be 3-1 after Week 4 with Ed Reed sidelined for two more weeks and another very tough road game coming up in Week 6 against the New England Patriots.
It's a little bit scary because there's no middle ground. Today is either going to be a very good day to be a Ravens fan or a very bad one.
Would you want it any other way?
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.