Ravens, Steelers share bad blood
Ashley Fox [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
November 21, 2012
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Leave it to Terrell Suggs to set the table for Sunday night's game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh: "It's when you can taste the blood in your mouth that you know it's on," Suggs said.

It's on, indeed, with or without Ben Roethlisberger.

Steelers-Ravens has become one of the NFL's marquee matchups. The teams don't like each other because they are similar, built historically on defense, with tough quarterbacks and good running games. It is smashmouth football at its finest. Or, as Suggs put it, "the most heated rivalry in sports, next to Heat-Celtics."

"This game," Suggs said, "sends a shock wave through the NFL."

Forgive him the hyperbole. It is a monster game for both teams. Always is.

Since the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, the series is knotted 9-9, including two playoff wins by Pittsburgh. But four of Pittsburgh's losses came when Roethlisberger was sidelined, either by injury, suspension or the coach's decision.

Roethlisberger had a knee injury in 2005 and missed the Steelers' Week 11 loss. He sat out the Week 17 loss in 2007, a game that ended the Brian Billick era in Baltimore, which gave way to John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco. Roethlisberger missed a Week 12 overtime loss in 2009 because of a concussion, and in Week 4 of 2010 he sat out for the final game of a four-game suspension.

Those four losses epitomized how valuable Roethlisberger is to the Steelers. Three of the games were decided by a field goal, the other by six points. These games are typically close and often low-scoring. Mistakes matter.

It's not that Roethlisberger always plays lights-out against the Ravens. He has a career completion percentage of 63.4, but for his career against Baltimore he has completed 56.5 percent of his passes, and since 2008, when Harbaugh and Flacco joined the Ravens, that percentage drops to 54.7. But the only games in that stretch in which Roethlisberger was the quarterback and the Steelers lost came last season: a 35-7 defeat at Baltimore in Week 1 and a 23-20 loss in Pittsburgh in Week 9.

Told on Wednesday that the Ravens are disappointed he will be sidelined with an injured rib and shoulder, Roethlisberger said, "I'm disappointed I'm not playing, too. It's tough, especially playing these guys."

And especially considering this is the first of two meetings in the next three weeks. These are games that should decide the division, playoff seeding and potentially a first-round bye or at least home-field advantage for one postseason game. At 7-2, the Ravens have a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, but there's plenty of time for that to change.

Pittsburgh now turns to Byron Leftwich to try to do what Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Tommy Maddox couldn't: Lead the Steelers to a win over Baltimore in Roethlisberger's stead. Leftwich, 32, hasn't won a game he started since Week 5 of the 2006 season, when he was in Jacksonville. He is 0-6 since in short tenures in Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

Leftwich is on his second stint with the Steelers, and he isn't under any illusions.

"I understand that in this situation nobody is probably giving us a shot, and that's understandable," Leftwich said. "Any time you lose a quarterback like Ben, let's be honest, I think he was playing on an MVP level. I think he's an elite quarterback in this league, and he's down. We all understand that. We all understand everybody's opinion and how they feel about the situation. But we're going to have to play the game Sunday night, and we'll see what happens. There's no need for me to think about what-ifs."

Like, what if the Steelers drop these two games against Baltimore? What if they somehow can't get to 10 wins against a schedule that includes two games against Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Diego at home and at Dallas? What if, despite starting 6-3, the Steelers miss the playoffs in a season when the AFC is down?

No, there's no reason to talk about what-ifs.

"We're just trying to score one more point than those guys," Leftwich said. "That's all that really matters."

When he tastes the blood in his mouth, Leftwich will know it is game -- and rivalry -- on.

INSIDE SLANT

There was an interesting Twitter debate earlier this week between NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson about who should win NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Seifert took Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Williamson took Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. Both players are coming back from serious injuries. Both are having career years. Both are deserving.

But which player will win it? Look at their teams' upcoming schedules.

Starting this week against Chicago, five of the Vikings' remaining six games are against teams that rank in the top 10 in rushing defense. Minnesota gets the Bears (No. 4) twice, Green Bay (No. 10) twice, Houston (No. 3) and St. Louis (No. 18). Five of the Broncos' seven remaining games are against teams in the lower half of the league in pass defense, including Cleveland (No. 22), Oakland (No. 24), Baltimore (No. 26) and Tampa Bay (No. 32). Only Kansas City, which Denver plays twice, ranks higher than 17th; the Chiefs are eighth against the pass.

So it is reasonable to speculate that Manning will have an easier time continuing to play at a high level, barring injury. There are plenty of factors voters will consider. Manning missed an entire year after having four neck surgeries. Peterson came back in unprecedented fashion just 260 days after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Manning switched teams. As a running back, Peterson absorbs way more contact. The Broncos are 6-3 with a two-game lead in their division. The Vikings are 6-4 when few thought they'd emerge out of the NFC North cellar.

There won't be a split vote. Peterson already has surpassed his goal of rushing for 1,000 yards, and he is on pace for a career-high 1,804 yards. His comeback has been amazing. But Manning missed an entire season and has returned to pre-injury form. If his stellar performances continue, he will win the award and might take home his fifth league MVP award, too.

- - -

We've reached the point in the season when significant injuries to significant players typically begin to mount. It happened last season. In Week 10, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot, sidelining him for the season. The Texans were 7-3 at the time, and finished 3-3. Third-string quarterback T.J. Yates was forced to start after backup Matt Leinart was hurt in Week 11. Also in Week 11, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler broke his right thumb. The Bears were 7-3 and had won five straight games, but finished the season 1-5 and missed the playoffs.

This week, potentially four starting quarterbacks will be sidelined by injuries suffered in Week 10....
Next >

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