The Steelers still have a Monday Night Football appearance before they can begin preparing for the Ravens. But for those wearing black and purple, Steelers week is here.
The Ravens will visit their most heated rival Sunday to open a stretch where they face Pittsburgh twice in three weeks. Coach John Harbaugh is among those excited for what lies ahead.
“To me, if you love football, there’s no greater place to be, playing there in that great stadium against that great organization,” he said. “Those games have always been great games. We’ve always felt like it’s a rivalry. We’ll continue to consider it a great rivalry. We’re excited to go play, we always are. We respect them and we love playing against them. So I suspect they feel the same way.”
It’s not all that common to have the NFL schedule-makers let one of the league’s best divisional match-ups exhaust the hype in a matter of three weeks, but this year, they let it fly.
Harbaugh’s reaction when he initially saw it?
“I was kind of like, ‘Interesting,’ ” he said. “But really, there’s always quirks in the schedule. There really is. Every team’s got them and that’s kind of a quirk for us - we play them sandwiched around a trip to San Diego. So that’ll be a big challenge for us, but everybody’s got those challenges this year. That’s ours. We just have to deal with it.”
As for the actual match-up, it pits the first-place Ravens (7-2) against the second-place Steelers (5-3), and could be an even more critical game for Pittsburgh if it loses to Kansas City tonight.
Baltimore can take comfort in the fact that it will have at least a one-game lead heading to Heinz Field. The Ravens also will be going into the contest coming off as impressive of a showing as they could expect.
The timing of Baltimore’s 55-20 win over the Raiders couldn’t have been much better, especially following an uneven road stretch where the team was walloped by the Texans and needed a late surge to beat the Browns.
“We wanted to put ourselves in position for this stretch if we could,” Harbaugh said. “When the schedule first came out, we knew it was going to be an important stretch for us, and here it is. Fortunately, we’ve been good enough to put ourselves in position to make it meaningful, Now it’s our job to make the most of it.”
So one would imagine that momentum is on the Ravens’ side. Harbaugh sees few negatives from heading to Pittsburgh one game after gaining confidence from setting a team scoring record.
“That’s a great question, a great dilemma. I can see it both ways,” Harbaugh said. “I’m kind of a confidence guy. I like confidence. I think confidence is borne of success. When you do things well, it’s a positive thing. It doesn’t guarantee anything, just like if you’re struggling the week before it doesn’t guarantee that you can’t do something. Every week does stand on its own, but playing well is a good thing. We’d like to build on that.”
The Steelers could be coming in hot, as they enter tonight having won three straight and four of five since a 1-2 start.
They possess the league’s top defense, allowing 262.6 yards per game - nearly 20 fewer than anyone else - and the NFL’s 11th-best offense. The defense will obviously be the focus, especially after there had been so much talk this offseason about the unit being primed to deteriorate as it continues to age.
The Ravens heard much of the same, but they haven’t been able to answer it with similar success. Harbaugh knows attacking the Steelers’ defense will be a challenge.
“Their demise was greatly exaggerated,” he said. “They look great. They’re playing great. They’re the No. 1 defense in the league - run, pass, make plays, sacks. They’re still getting sacks. It’s just a premier defense, no doubt.”
The Ravens wouldn’t expect anything less and because of that, Harbaugh said it’s the “best week of the year.”
“It’s where we feel the most comfortable, probably,” Harbaugh said. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable, and I think our players and coaches feel the same way. It’s a defining type of a rivalry. It means so much to both teams. We like being in this week, we love playing these guys, we love the preparation for these guys. I’d say it’s the best week of the year.”