PITTSBURGH — The faces on the court keep changing. The stakes, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens face off, remain the same. Especially in December.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is retired. Lamar Jackson, his counterpart, is injured. It doesn’t matter. Not when Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh occupy the sidelines and try to replicate what they’ve been doing for 15-plus seasons: trying to motivate their team to start a late push that will alter the playoff race in the North Section of the League. ‘American Association.
« It takes two to dance, and they’re great dance partners, » said Steelers head coach Tomlin.
“On a collective level, we have produced some quality moments for football lovers. This is cool to be part of something like this. »
Despite some anxiety-provoking moments, neither Tomlin nor Harbaugh would have it any other way. Their 32nd meeting this Sunday — the second-most head coach matchup in NFL history — exudes a similar atmosphere to the previous 31.
And this, even if the Steelers (5-7) live a year of transition with Kenny Pickett taking over from Roethlisberger and the Ravens (8-4) begin a series of games without Jackson, victim of a knee injury that could keep him away for several weeks.
The Steelers have won three of their last four outings to breathe some life into their slim playoff chances. In effect, their wiggle room is gone with a 2-6 record after their first eight outings.
Although the Ravens are in a better position, nothing has been easy. They needed a last-second touchdown, on a dive from backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, to defeat the Denver Broncos 10-9 last Sunday.
And now they have to go to an environment where they have had sporadic success, with a quarterback who is 1-3 in a starting role.
The Steelers have won the last four meetings against the Ravens, in a series of meetings marked by solid play and generally low scores. We can expect a similar scenario this Sunday.
« Both teams are getting tough, hard-working players, » Ravens safety Chuck Clark said. When these two clubs cross swords on the field, that’s the result you have: a robust duel where the two clubs fight hard every time. »
Pickett spent five years at the University of Pittsburgh, where he got a taste of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry through osmosis. He overcame a difficult start to his career by managing to play with more composure in recent weeks, and avoiding the mistakes he had been accumulating at the start of the year.
Suddenly, he helped the Steelers get a little closer to the portrait of the playoffs in the American Conference. However, a loss and the Steelers’ already unlikely chances of playing football late in January are likely to fade away.
« I would say the intensity is amplified, » admits Pickett. It’s a big week. If you keep winning, each match becomes more important. So that’s what we’re focusing on; come out of the stadiums with victories. »
As for Huntley, the Steelers aren’t entirely unfamiliar to him. In the final game of the 2021 season, he started the game in place of Jackson, racked up 141 passing yards and 72 rushing yards in a 16-13 Steelers victory that allowed them to qualify for the playoffs.