No matter which players take the field, it’s still Ravens-Steelers in AFC North showdown (with roster move)

No Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu on the Steelers’ side.

No Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb on the Ravens’ side.

It might not be the same players, but the intensity remains the same as the first-place Ravens head to Pittsburgh to take on the second-place Steelers Sunday night in what has become one of the NFL’s premier rivalries.

“Everybody is going to go through their game on Sunday, but please believe they’re going to rush home, get on their couch, get all nice and comfortable and see the Ravens play the Steelers,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “This is it. This is the week everybody’s been waiting for.”

As for a snapshot of the history between the AFC North rivals, the Steelers lead the all-time series 18-14. However, the Ravens have won the last two meetings as part of their league-best 11-game winning streak versus divisional foes.

Of the teams’ 10 meetings since 2008, including playoffs, only three games have been decided by more than four points and only two by more than seven.

The Ravens are also the last team to win at Heinz Field - 23-20 on Nov. 6, 2011.

“It’s a good, old-fashioned alley fight. You need a good one of those every now and then,” Suggs said. “This is why the two teams don’t like each other, because we’re so similar - you never cross paths without having a few things in common. So, if you look down the line in their team and our team, it’s pretty similar.

“So it means a lot. This is why you play football, for games like this. You remember some games, but these are the games that you tell your grandkids about. You know, when we go down to Heinz Field and you see the towels, and you see the colors, you know you’re in a fight. Please believe we know what they’re going to do. As soon as we walk in their stadium, they’re going to lock the gates. But that’s what we want. We definitely want them to lock the gates behind us so we can get in there and we can have it out. We’ll see, when the clock reads 0:00, we’ll just see what happens. We’ll see how it goes.”

This one carries plenty of meaning at this stage of the season, as the 7-2 Ravens hold a one-game lead over the 6-3 Steelers.

Plus, it begins a stretch where the teams face each other twice in three weeks. And on top of that, the Steelers could be without their two best players - Roethlisberger and Polamalu - for all of it.

So not only are the Ravens and Steelers playing for first place, but they both will have to do it with key pieces missing. The Ravens’ Lewis and Webb are on injured reserve while cornerback Jimmy Smith just had sports hernia surgery.

Baltimore has continued to win despite the injuries and defensive ineffectiveness. Although Pittsburgh has the league’s top-ranked defense despite Polamalu appearing in just two games, this is the first contest the team will be without Roethlisberger. Veteran backup Byron Leftwich is slated to start in his place.

Since Roethlisberger became the Steelers’ quarterback in 2004, the Ravens are 4-0 when he hasn’t played because of injury or suspension. So history is on Baltimore’s side over the next three weeks, and what a critical three games they will be.

Considering the teams face each other twice in that time, the quarterback’s sprained shoulder and rib injury couldn’t have come at a worse moment.

When this stretch is complete, the Ravens could potentially clinch the AFC North with four games remaining in the regular season.

If Baltimore takes both meetings with the Steelers - which doesn’t seem so farfetched considering Roethlisberger might be out - and wins at San Diego in between, it can secure the division title if the Steelers lose at Cleveland next week and the third-place Bengals (4-5) lose one of the next three games.

So the Ravens could potentially have the AFC North wrapped up with a quarter of the season to play if they can reach 10-2, Pittsburgh slips to 6-6 and Cincinnati suffers a sixth defeat.

The Ravens are aware of just how important this stretch will be.

“You can probably feel it a little bit. At the same time, I think our job and when we’re at our best is when we come in here and kind of go about our business the same, no matter what the circumstances may be,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I think we do a great job of doing that.

“For the most part, I would think we’re pretty much the same, but there is probably a little sense that the next few weeks are going to kind of determine a good amount of how the season goes. I think we’ve set ourselves up nicely. We’ve played very well in the first half. That doesn’t just get put to the wayside now and forgotten about. Those games will be accounted for, come playoff time, to determine the teams that get in. These games will be important, especially for the division. We have half the games left in the division - one against Cincinnati, two against these guys (the Steelers). It will definitely be important for our AFC North championship (pursuit).”

RiceTD2012sidebar.jpgThe Ravens come in having won two in a row, including last Sunday’s 55-20 win over the Raiders where Baltimore set a team record for points in a game.

The Steelers enter as one of the hottest teams in football, having won four straight ... with Roethlisberger under center.

The teams’ offenses have posted comparable numbers, as they’re tied for 16th in the NFL in yards per game. The Ravens have the scoring edge, however, ranking fourth in the league with 28.2 points per contest while the Steelers are 18th with 23 per game.

Pittsburgh owns a decisive advantage defensively, leading the NFL by holding teams to just 265.7 yards per game, including a league-low 171.1 passing yards per contest.

“They’ve done what they always do,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They pressure you, first of all. They’ve got very good pass rushers. They do a good job of trying to get their guys in one-on-one situations.

“I think they have very good corners on both sides of the ball. Their safeties play with good vision - run and pass. It’s always a combination of the front end and the back end, and they’ve just done a good job. And they have a nice package.”

Baltimore’s defensive woes have persisted, even in victories, as the team stands 27th in yards allowed. However, the Ravens own the best red-zone defense in the league, letting opponents convert on just 36.1 percent of their chances.

Although it might be a different set of players, backups filling in for stars and the like, running back Ray Rice knows the game remains as critical.

“This is the week that Ravens fans, Steelers fans always look forward to,” Rice said. “It’s one of the most old-fashioned rivalries in football. In my five years, it’s been one of the most fun games to play in. Obviously, winning is better, but even the losses you take from, and you try to build off of it.

“We draft a team based on how we are going to be able to compete with the Steelers. But now, I think we are neck-and-neck with them. Obviously, they have won more Super Bowls than us, but they know coming into this game what kind of game it’s going to be.”

Update: The Ravens placed rookie safety Christian Thompson (knee) on injured reserve and added safety Anthony Levine to their 53-man roster Saturday.

Levine has spent the season on the Ravens’ practice squad and was on the Packers’ practice squad for the majority of his first two seasons in the league, but has not appeared in any NFL games.

Thompson, a fourth-round pick in 2012, appeared on special teams in seven contests this season.