Steelers-Ravens primetime matchup no longer looks like a dud

November 25, 2013|Mike Preston

A few weeks ago there was laughter around the NFL because the primetime game Thanksgiving Day featured two losing teams: the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But now, there is a renewed excitement.

Both teams have losing records at 5-6, but the winner moves closer to securing the sixth and final spot for the AFC playoffs, and stays within striking distance of the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals.

For the loser of Thursday's game, the season practically ends.

"Stipulations are high," Ravens tight end Ed Dickson said. "We're battling. It usually seems like it always plays out to be like this [where] we'll be playing that other team for the division. But we want to worry about one game at a time. We've got to have great mental practice this week and go out and play Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving."

After most wins this season, there wasn't an indication that the Ravens had gotten better. They weren't overly impressive in a 19-3 win against the New York Jets on Sunday, especially after the two teams engaged in a horrendous first half.

But at least there were some things the Ravens could build on. They ran the Wildcat offense against the Jets, and that showed some creativity and a willingness to do something to score points.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, who has struggled this season, was solid and didn't commit monster turnovers that led to New York points. The Ravens also had balance in the passing game as six receivers caught passes including Dickson who had three catches for 55 yards.

But Sunday also marked the return of receiver Jacoby Jones, who had four receptions for 103 yards including a 66-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that broke the game open.

That play put the long ball back in the offense and showed that the Ravens had another threat opposite wide receiver Torrey Smith.

''That was huge for our offense," said Smith of Jones' reception. "It's not that we're depending on it, but it always helps to get chunks of yardage like that. When we get those kinds of days going, it's usually good for our offense.

"I'm always excited when anyone on our team is able to enjoy success, but especially Jacoby. It's been tough for him. The year started out with an injury. To see him get going the way he did, especially on special teams, but also as a receiver. That's huge for us. When he's playing like that, he's able to create big plays for us, and it really helps us out a lot."

It's been a mystery why the Ravens haven't used Jones more to return punts and kickoffs, especially with such an erratic offense. But against the Jets, Jones returned five punts for 108 yards including one for 37. He also averaged 19 yards on two kickoffs.

That's instant offense, and with the leg strength of kicker Justin Tucker, it can be a deadly combination.

Defensively, the Ravens have advanced to another level. The front seven have played consistently well most of the season, and now the secondary has turned in strong efforts three straight weeks. Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith have blanketed receivers with press coverage and Graham had two interceptions against the Jets after a tough outing in the final quarters against the Chicago Bears the week before.

"Pretty much everybody's stepping up and playing good football right now," Graham said. "Sometimes, it's going to be tough times for guys. I mean, this is the NFL, those guys get paid, too. When it comes to it, I feel like we've got a good group, and guys are going out there and making plays. It could be anybody. Every week, it can be a different guy. That's when you've got a good group of guys."

It appears the Steelers have improved more than the Ravens during the course of the season, especially since Oct. 20 when the Steelers upset the Ravens, 19-16.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears more comfortable in the no-huddle offense and Antonio Brown has emerged as one of the league's top receivers. Pittsburgh has also discovered their running back of the future in Le'Veon Bell.

On defense, the Steelers are back to forcing turnovers and playing physical. In a recent 37-27 win against the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh held Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford to 35 passing yards and star receiver Calvin Johnson to zero catches in the second half.

Usually, a Ravens vs Steelers game near the end of the season has major impact on the division title, but now might decide who gets the final seed in the AFC playoffs.

"Every week is a must-win," Smith said. "If you lose, things aren't going to be looking pretty for you. We just have to keep giving ourselves a fighting chance."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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