Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's chances of playing Sunday's game against the Ravens were gauged at less than 50 percent. The Steelers' odds of qualifying for the postseason may not be much better.
At 6-5, Pittsburgh is mired in a two-game losing skid, trailing the AFC North-leading Ravens by three games. And now the Steelers will have to meet the Ravens on Sunday without their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who was ruled out.
But there's no pity party going on with the Steelers.
"I think it's the same that it has been," wide receiver Mike Wallace said during a conference call this week . "I don't think we're around here panicking or anything like that. I think we're just going to go about our business the same way we've been going about it and preparing the same way. We've just got to get on the other side of some of those [outcomes]."
Just a little more than three years ago, Pittsburgh had absorbed its first three-game losing streak under coach Mike Tomlin and found itself at 6-5. In response, Tomlin uttered a memorable line .
"We will unleash hell here in December because we have to," Tomlin said on Nov. 29, 2009 after the Ravens had tagged the Steelers with a 20-17 overtime loss. "We won't go in a shell. We'll go into attack mode because that's what's required."
Pittsburgh went on to win three of their last five games, which wasn't enough for the team to make the playoffs. But a similar scenario might be enough to propel the Steelers into the playoffs this season.
The Steelers, who are currently sixth in the AFC, and the Cincinnati Bengals are the only teams with 6-5 marks. The Miami Dolphins are 5-6, and a foursome of teams in the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans are 4-7.
While Tomlin refrained from repeating that "unleash hell" line ("We're just going to stick to playing football," he deadpanned.), Tomlin made no attempts to disguise the importance of Sunday's showdown with the Ravens.
"This is a game we've got to win, and we're approaching it as such," he said. "We're not necessarily worried about what they're capable of doing."
Phil Simms, CBS Sports NFL lead analyst, said he anticipates a renewed effort from the Steelers on Sunday.
"I think any time you get a team where the team perceives itself in a desperate situation, you're going to see everything that they have," said Simms, who quarterbacked the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles. "Why that's important is, emotions always translate themselves in athletes into helping their bodies out. I'm not going to say it's a desperation game for the Steelers, but it's pretty urgent. So I would be surprised if emotionally and physically and all that, we don't see them as good as they can be."
No Ravens player has better insight into Pittsburgh than quarterback Dennis Dixon, who was drafted by the organization in 2008 and spent four seasons there. Dixon, who is now a member of the Ravens' practice squad, said veterans like strong safety Troy Polamalu, inside linebacker Larry Foote and defensive end Brett Keisel will rally the players around a common objective: knocking off the Ravens and keeping their postseason hopes alive.
"There's a lot of football left to be played around here," Dixon said. "In the NFL, things can be tricky coming down the stretch. When you get into November and December football, that's when it truly counts. And I'm quite sure that Mike Tomlin is harping on finishing. He knows that the time is now, and I'm quite sure they'll be able to answer the bell."
Tomlin liked what he saw from his players after Sunday's stunning 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
"It's a focused group and rightfully so," he said. "We've got a lot of work cut out for us here today in preparation for this game and it appears the guys are right-minded in terms of how we're approaching that."
While the Steelers have to play without Roethlisberger who is nursing dislocated ribs and a sprained right shoulder and are dealing with a reshuffled deck at running back and wide receiver, the defense is still the stingiest in the NFL. That's enough to get the attention of Ravens running back Ray Rice.
"When they play us, you've got to put records aside," he said. "We're obviously still trying to do what they've done, and they've won multiple Super Bowls. So for us, you can't just call it another game. We know what it holds. [It's] a division game. We got one there, but it is our job to protect our house, and we know what kind of game it's going to be."
A win would go a long way to pushing the Steelers down that road, but Wallace said overtaking the Ravens for the AFC North title is not a priority just yet.
"We can't really control that," he said of overcoming the three-game deficit in the division. "We just have to keep playing football and let everything falls where it falls. We just need to get a ticket to the dance, and that's it."
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