The last time Pittsburgh rookie Ben Roethlisberger walked off the field a loser was in Baltimore more than three months ago.
He’ll have a chance to avenge that defeat, extend his record winning streak as a first-year starter to 13 games and clinch home-field advantage for the Steelers throughout the AFC playoffs when the Ravens visit Heinz Field.
And if that isn’t motivation enough, Pittsburgh can also knock Baltimore out of serious contention for a playoff spot.
“We need to take care of business at home,” Steelers running back Jerome Bettis insisted. “This game is going to mean everything. This is the biggest game of the year for us.”
A win gives Pittsburgh a first-round bye as well as the edge of playing its conference playoff games at home, where it is 7-0 this season. There are scenarios involving other teams this week, however, that could allow the Steelers to achieve both goals even if they lose.
But for Baltimore, a win is almost a must. The Ravens are one of four 8-6 teams fighting for the AFC’s final wild-card spot.
“The objective was to get to 10-6,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said. “We’ve said all along, does that get you in? We’ll find out. There are multiple scenarios. There’s an incredible amount of football that has to be played before we find out what’s going to happen.”
Though it stands as the only blemish on Pittsburgh’s record this season, a 30-13 loss at Baltimore in Week 2 also may have indirectly made the Steelers a Super Bowl contender because that’s when Roethlisberger jumped into the mix.
The rookie quarterback from Miami of Ohio came on in relief of an injured Tommy Maddox in that game, and has since won 12 consecutive starts.
“Tommy goes down with an injury and we don’t know what Ben is going to do,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward said. “He doesn’t have to prove anything to us (now). It’s a total different makeup of this team from the first time we played them to now.”
Though Roethlisberger usually just has to avoid big mistakes while the Steelers’ rushing attack and defense control the game, he showed last Saturday that he can get the job done as well. He threw for a season-high 316 yards and hit four straight passes to set up Bettis’ game-winning 1-yard TD run with 4:57 to go as Pittsburgh beat the New York Giants 33-30.
That extended the Steelers’ team-record win streak to 12, and moved them a game ahead of New England in the AFC standings after the Patriots’ stunning Monday night loss to Miami. If Pittsburgh and New England finish with the same record, the Steelers would win the tiebreaker due to their 34-20 win over the Patriots on Oct. 31.
Bettis could be starting again in place of Duce Staley, who continues to be bothered by a hamstring injury. Bettis has rushed for at least 100 yards in all five starts this season, but he’s been held below 100 in his last nine games against the Ravens.
The Bus did not even get a carry in the first meeting with Baltimore— Staley was held to 57 yards on 16 carries—and Roethlisberger was sacked twice and had two passes intercepted in less than a half.
“We’re Pittsburgh’s kryptonite,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs declared Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a brawl, but we’re still the Baltimore Ravens and I’m not afraid of their offense one bit.”
The Ravens now try to sweep the season series from the Steelers for the first time in team history. They’ve lost their last three trips to Pittsburgh.
“It’s Pittsburgh. It’s a rivalry. That’s why you play the game,” Billick said. “You add the ramifications, and they have a great deal at stake, as do we. And they’re very good at home, and they’ve beaten elite (teams) at home.”
Billick’s team came close to pulling off a win over an elite team Sunday night, but lost 20-10 to Indianapolis despite holding the high-powered Colts offense to its lowest point total of the season.
A big bright spot was the performance of Jamal Lewis, whose 130 rushing yards were his most in seven games during what has been an injury-plagued season.
Lewis (ankle), however, is one of many key Ravens nursing injuries heading into this game, along with Ray Lewis (wrist), Todd Heap (ankle) and Deion Sanders (foot). All have missed practice time this week and are listed as questionable, though they’re all expected to play.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher surely plans on them playing as if they’re at full strength.
“We’ve got that bull’s-eye on our chest, so I think we’re getting the best efforts from teams,” Cowher said. “I don’t think this week will be any different.”