Much on the line as strengthened Steelers visit Ravens

Ben Roethlisberger might not be back in black and gold Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, but a wavy-haired safety and fleet-footed wide receiver could return for the Steelers.

With Troy Polamalu likely back on defense and Antonio Brown probably back on offense, the Ravens will be hosting a healthier, stronger Steelers team than they saw at Heinz Field two weeks ago.

And a more desperate one at that.

The Ravens come in riding a four-game winning streak that has them at 9-2 and holding a three-game lead in the AFC North. Pittsburgh, however, has lost two straight since Roethlisberger went down and could be eliminated from the division race with a loss Sunday.

But as much as one might want to play up the Steelers’ desperation, the Ravens won’t be at all comfortable considering a win means their rival is eliminated while a loss makes it a two-game margin with four contests to go.

Baltimore has a chance to close out the division with a win and a Bengals loss. But a defeat would mean they don’t get that opportunity again for at least a couple of weeks.

“Our guys have positioned themselves very well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “To take advantage of an opportunity, that’s what you try to do. We talked. Every game you win, it makes that next game that much more important.

“The importance of the games builds throughout the course of the season when you’re winning. So this game is more important than last week. Of course, it’s obviously against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has their backs against the wall, but this game is the same no matter what. Our concern is with us, it’s how we play and we’re looking forward to it.”

Quarterback Joe Flacco said the team isn’t close to relaxed despite its padding atop the division.

“It may seem like that, but we’re really not in any more of a comfortable position,” he said. “We haven’t decided anything yet. The stakes are high. We’re trying to become one of the top teams in the AFC. In order to do that, we have to win every week. We understand that, and there is a big emphasis on continuing to win.

“It may seem like a loss may not kill us, but you never know. In this league, anything can happen, so we have to go out there and put our best foot forward each week and make sure that we go out there and do the best things we can to win this football game.”

So the fact that Polamalu and Brown could be back can’t be downplayed. Pittsburgh narrowly lost without both and now the league’s top-ranked defense gets a boost two weeks after holding the Ravens without an offensive touchdown.

Quarterback Charlie Batch will have two new weapons at his disposal, with the recently signed Plaxico Burress being the other, against a progressing Ravens defense.

“Obviously, with Troy, you have to be aware of him at all times,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve done a great job of playing defense back there without Troy. So you add a guy like that in the mix, obviously, what a factor that can be.

“(Brown’s) a playmaker on offense and special teams. He’s another factor on offense. That will obviously help. It would help any team.”

Having already matched the best start in team history, the Ravens will be looking to improve to 10-2 for the first time. They lost after opening 9-2 en route to a 13-3 record in 2006.

Also, Baltimore returns to M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since Nov. 11, seeking its 16th straight home victory. Pittsburgh was the last team to beat the Ravens in Baltimore - 13-10 on Dec. 5, 2010.

“I didn’t know that. Thank you. I didn’t know that, but we do now,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “First and foremost, defend M&T. She’s been mother to us all and been very good to us. So we’ve got to continue to be good for her.”

Had the Ravens not lost to the Steelers that day, the home winning streak would be at a ridiculous 24 in a row. Overall in the Ravens-Steelers series, Baltimore has won three straight.

With so much on the line, the meaning of this episode of the rivalry is astronomical in a series that already brings natural intensity.

“Put records aside, it’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers,” running back Ray Rice said. “Every year, like I said, the rivalry never changes. They are who they are. When they play us, you have to put the records aside. We are, obviously, still trying to do what they’ve done, and they’ve won multiple Super Bowls.

“For us, you can’t just call it another game. We know what it holds. It’s a division game. We have one there, but it is our job to protect our house, and we know what kind of game it’s going to be.”