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Steelers close out regular season against Ravens

(Sports Network) - The roller-coaster ride for the Pittsburgh Steelers hit the top of the hill on Monday night when they toppled the Tampa Buccaneers and secured the AFC North title, However, the Steelers can't afford to take their foot off the gas pedal this Sunday when they tangle with arch-rival Baltimore at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh can still garner home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a little help. The Steelers must win and have Tennessee and Oakland lose to clinch an extended stay at Heinz Field. However, a loss here could push the Steelers as low as the fourth seed and force them into playing in the first round of the postseason.

"We are playing well at the right time of year. I said that last week. I think last week was the closest thing we came to be playing our most complete game in all three years," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. "I thought even Monday that the kicking game was solid, we had the one turnover and really that was the only blemish I thought."

Amazingly enough, the Ravens still have a paper thin chance at qualifying for the postseason despite their sub-.500 record. Baltimore would need a relative miracle to get to the playoffs, as it must win and hope that New England, the New York Jets, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego falter. The Ravens understand the unlikely scenario, but they feel that anything is possible in the wild AFC.

"Our priorities are always to make the playoffs," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We’re still in a playoff chase. I know the moons have to go into alignment. The Dow has to go above 10,000. There’s a lot of things that have to happen, but we’re playing the last game of the season with, however remote, a playoff chance."

SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh won the first meeting in 2002 between these clubs, 31-18, on October 27 at Baltimore. With the victory, the Steelers increased their lead in the all-time series to 9-4. WR Hines Ward caught eight balls for 97 yards and Plaxico Burress added five receptions for 55 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Burress and Ravens DB James Trapp were tossed out of the game just before halftime for fighting. The Steelers have won three of the last four meetings in this series.

Cowher is 10-4 versus the Ravens, while Billick is 3-4 against the Steelers in his career.


Baltimore came up short, 14-13, in a crucial contest against Cleveland last week mostly due to the inability of the offense to put points on the board. QB Jeff Blake couldn't get things going in the loss, completing just 16-of-28 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Despite the lack of impressive numbers, Billick was happy with Blake's play.

"I think he [Blake] played very well. In the first half, he was what? 10 for 12? He was very efficient and he has been very careful with the ball," said Billick. "He orchestrated a good game Sunday and has played very well the last two games in particular, in under pressure situations."

Blake's overall play down the stretch has been solid, as he has thrown for seven touchdowns and just three interceptions over the last four games. The veteran hasn't had much help in the receiving corps and that is reflected in the Ravens' total pass numbers (169.3 ypg, 15th-AFC).

Essentially, the Ravens' only consistent pass catching threat this season has been All-Pro TE Todd Heap, who has grabbed 61 balls for 690 yards and five scores this season. Heap led the way in the receiving category against versus Cleveland, hauling in seven balls for 61 yards.

A season-ending injury to top wideout Brandon Stokley has catapulted rookie Randy Hymes out of Grambling into the starting lineup. Hymes had a career-high three catches for 36 yards last week versus Cleveland. Billick is comfortable with Hymes in the starting rotation.

"As much as you can be with a young player. As I said, with Randy, every experience is a new one. He’s going to do something that may cost us at some point, but he’s going to learn from it," said Billick. "And he’s only going to learn from that by being in the game. We’re going to know more about Randy Hymes going into training camp, which will be a huge plus for us."

Even more pressure has been placed on WR Travis Taylor's shoulders. Taylor, who has never quite lived up to expectations, pulled down three catches for 39 yards and a touchdown last week.

Pittsburgh shouldn't have all that much trouble stopping the Ravens' lackluster pass offense with its steadily improving defense. The Steelers showed what they are capable of Monday, nearly shutting Tampa Bay out in their 17-7 win.

If it weren't for a late touchdown, the Steelers would have pitched the shutout thanks to a plethora of blitzes. Pittsburgh sacked the Tampa Bay quarterbacks six times and put pressure on them on almost every play. DE Aaron Smith recorded a pair of sacks to pace the Steelers' pass rush.

Reserve corner Mike Logan seemed to be all over the field in the game, breaking through the line to harass Shaun King and Doug Johnson. The Steelers actually lined Logan up like a linebacker and blitzed him a large amount of the time. Look for Logan to see plenty of action in this contest as well.

The play of the game for the Steelers' defense came when CB Chad Scott picked off a King pass and returned it 30 yards for a score. Scott will miss this contest, though, due to a broken hand. He underwent surgery on the injury on Tuesday.

"I have not talked to the doctors in regards to his hand," said Cowher. "He is out for this game. We will go from there. We are cautiously optimistic that he will be ready to go for the playoffs."

Expect the Steelers' secondary to be searching for an opportunity to force a turnover again this week. Nickel corner Hank Poteat must step in and play well for Scott in this contest.

Pittsburgh should be able to pressure Blake, as the Ravens have surrendered 38 sacks (12th-AFC) this season. Blake has been sacked 11 times in the last five games.

The Ravens must make full use of RB Jamal Lewis this week to keep the Steelers from blitzing on every down. An effective running game will curtail Pittsburgh's blitz package and force it to keep its defenders at home to try to stop Lewis. Last week, Lewis posted 100 yards on 21 carries (4.8 ypc) against Cleveland.

Pittsburgh's excellent run defense (84.1 ypg, 1st-NFL) limited Lewis to only 34 yards rushing in the first meeting. Talented LBs Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Kendrell Bell and James Farrior make it nearly impossible to run effectively against the Steelers' 3-4 set.


The Pittsburgh offense came out of the gates very quickly against the Bucs, scoring on its first possession. QB Tommy Maddox was right on target in the early minutes, going 3-for-3 for 70 yards and a touchdown on the first drive.

"This was a big game for us to jump out to a lead like that. When the defense plays like that, it’s pretty easy," said Maddox.

Maddox's accuracy helped the Steelers dominate the early going of the game and take the Bucs' crowd out of it. He finished the night 17-of-23 for 236 yards and touchdown. Lanky WR Plaxico Burress was on the receiving end of five passes for 127 yards in the win.

"Plex [Plaxico] did a great job. They tried to get that eighth man in the box. And Plex and Hines [Ward] did a great job," said Maddox.

Maddox's status for this game is up in the air due to a sprained ankle suffered against the Bucs. If Maddox doesn't go, the Steelers will once again look to Kordell Stewart to pick up the slack.

Ward was his usual quietly effective self, grabbing six passes for 78 yards in the winning effort. Third wideout Antwaan Randle El added an 11-yard touchdown reception on the first drive. Burress, Ward and Randle El combine to provide one of the most dangerous receiving trios in the NFL.

It will be no easy task for the Ravens' young secondary to slow down Maddox and the Steelers' talented receivers. Baltimore has struggled stopping the pass this year, allowing 227.7 yards per contest through the air. Last week, the Ravens allowed 193 yards passing to Cleveland, including the game-winning one-yard touchdown pass with just 29 seconds remaining.

Billick knows what type of test his young defenders face, heading into a tough environment like Pittsburgh this week.

"You’re going into Pittsburgh every year.’ 90 percent of these guys haven’t played in Pittsburgh," said Billick. "So they’re going to find out what it’s like to play in Pittsburgh, in December, against what I think is the most talented team in the AFC. So let the lessons begin."

After grabbing the early lead against Tampa Bay, the Steelers turned to the running game with a combination of Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue. Bettis only managed 2.6 yards per carry on 26 attempts (66 yards), while Zereoue added 23 yards on five attempts. Look for Pittsburgh to attempt to establish Bettis early in this tilt.

Baltimore has been pretty good versus the run this year, holding foes to just 105.8 yards per contest and a league-best 3.7 yards per attempt. The Ravens have leaned on young LB Edgerton Hartwell (130 tackles) to carry their run defense with Ray Lewis sidelined for the year.

Hartwell and Peter Boulware will need to be on their toes and quick to the ball if they expect to stop the "Bus" from running down hill and racking up big yards.

Baltimore will not lay down and let the Steelers walk over it in this contest. Pittsburgh is surely feeling good about itself right now and that could become costly. The Ravens have a tendency to register wins when nobody thinks they can get the job done. Look for Baltimore to take advantage of a Pittsburgh letdown and post an upset victory.

12/26 14:00:29 ET

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