This could be the Steelers’ biggest game since their playoff upset loss to the Broncos in January 2012.
This dismisses all of last season … but given the way they played throughout a disappointing season in which they never found a rhythm, balance or identity, the Steelers pretty much dismissed that season on their own.
If they win their fourth in a row and beat the Ravens (5-6), the Steelers (5-6) will haul a coal barge full of momentum into December. They will also continue a pattern that all of their better teams of recent vintage followed by playing their best when the games are most important. Some examples:
— The 2011 and 2010 teams that went 12-4 both won four in a row as December began to unfold, and six of the last seven.
— The 2008 team that won the Super Bowl won five straight and six of its last seven.
— The 2005 team that won the Super Bowl, in danger of missing the playoffs after a three-game losing streak dropped it to 7-5, won its final four games – and then all four in the playoffs.
See a pattern?
The Steelers will have everything to play for in December if they can get past the Ravens, but that will be difficult. AFC North teams are 7-1 at home (the only loss being the Browns to the Steelers on Sunday) and the Ravens have won eight of their last nine at home in the division (the only loss being against the Steelers 23-20 on Dec. 2).
But if they do, the Steelers will head into a final month of the season in which they will leave Pittsburgh only once, on Dec. 22 to play a reeling Packers team that very well could not have Aaron Rodgers, who is injured with no return date imminent.
They’ll be favored to beat the Dolphins on Dec. 8, favored to beat the Browns on Dec. 29 and the Dec. 15 game against Bengals (which NBC is expected to keep as its Sunday night contest) could be a tossup.
If the Steelers win Thursday – look for a long run by Le’Veon Bell to make the difference if they do – they can even start thinking about winning the AFC North, not going just for the second AFC wild card spot.
They currently trail the Bengals (7-4) by two games with five to go, a huge disadvantage to overcome with so few games remaining. But if the Steelers beat the Ravens and the Dolphins, and the Bengals lose either Sunday at San Diego (5-6) or the following week to the Colts (7-4), the Steelers could tie the Bengals by beating them in Pittsburgh.
Both teams would be 8-6, but the Steelers would own the tiebreaker based on a better division record (the Steelers would be 4-1; the Bengals 2-3).
Then, the Steelers would be in control of their own destiny, not just for the wild card but for the division — inconceivable when they were 0-4.
The remaining Bengals schedule:
Sunday, at Chargers (5-6); Dec. 8, Colts (7-4) in Cincinnati; Dec. 15, at Steelers; Dec. 22, Vikings (2-8-1) in Cincinnati; Dec. 29, Ravens (5-6) in Cincinnati.
So the Steelers and Bengals have three home games remaining, but the Bengals’ schedule down the stretch looks slightly more difficult; both Cincinnati and Baltimore could have playoff hopes riding Dec. 29, the same day the Steelers are at home against Cleveland.
See how important this Ravens game is? It could make the Steelers season or, conceivably, all but end it. That’s a lot riding on one game.
And consider this: If the Steelers lose to the Ravens and then fade down the stretch in December, perhaps finishing 7-9, it could lead to an offseason teardown and rebuilding the likes of which the Steelers haven’t seen in years. Given general manager Kevin Colbert’s unhappiness at last season’s 8-8, and the changes that followed (most notably the heavy reliance on the 2013 draft class), it’s difficult to imagine him staying with a status quo in 2014 – especially given the large number of over-30 players who are due to make big, big salaries next season.
That’s why this Ravens game is so big. It could set the course not only for this season, but for 2014, 2015 and 2016, too.
Records of Steelers and Ravens after 11 games
Season Ravens Steelers
1996 3-8 8-3*
1997 4-7 8-3*
1998 4-7 7-4
1999 4-7 5-6
2000- 7-4*+ 5-6
2001 7-4* 9-2*
2002 5-6 6-5*
2003 6-5* 4-7
2004 7-4 10-1*
2005 3-8 7-4*+
2006 9-2* 4-7
2007 4-7 8-3*
2008 7-4* 8-3*+
2009 6-5* 6-5
2010 8-3* 8-3*
2011 8-3* 8-3*
2012 9-2*+ 6-5
2013 5-6 5-6
+ Won Super Bowl