Baltimore Ravens (5-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
1. Right now, it's the NFL's best rivalry.
Yes, the statement can be argued, but in terms of the last several seasons -- Pittsburgh leads the series 10-9 since 2003 -- the high stakes of the games in recent years, the unmatched physicality of the two teams and the blue-collar aura of the cities, this is the best series going.
"It's the equivalent of Alabama-Auburn, with a lot of old-fashion hate going on out there," Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said. "It'll be a brawl, it'll be a fistfight ... maybe even literally."
Whoops. Did we just say that? Never mind, Mr. Commissioner.
This game will mark the 10th time the two clubs have butted heads since the 2008 season, a run that includes two meetings in the playoffs. The Steelers own a 6-3 edge over that span, a rubicon defined by the arrival of coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco to Baltimore. But seven of those first eight games were decided by seven points or fewer, with five determined by a field goal, including one in overtime. In fact, the Steelers were unbeaten during those eight games (6-0) with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center.
Then came the last one.
The Ravens positively pounded the Steelers in a 35-7 season-opening blowout at Baltimore, intercepting Roethlisberger three times, sacking him four times and forcing a franchise-record seven turnovers.
Pittsburgh, though, has righted itself after a slow start to win four straight, including a big victory last week over New England. Baltimore, meanwhile, basically sleep-walked for six quarters its last two games. The Ravens pulled a no-show in a Monday-night loss in Jacksonville, then followed it up by falling behind by 21 points before rallying for a great comeback home win against Arizona last weekend.
Now, with the Roethlisberger monkey off their collective wings, the Ravens have a chance to grab a giant tiebreaker edge on their AFC North rival -- a series sweep -- heading into the season's second half.
"I think they are the same Steelers they have always been -- they are a tough, hard-nosed team. They have a great quarterback, and they have a great defense, and they are as physical as can be. It's a team we respect," said Harbaugh, who also knows the team in black and yellow is a prideful bunch and will be out to respond to that 28-point beatdown of Sept. 11. "We've all got a lot of pride, and I don't doubt that they'll be very motivated for the game, as will we."
2. He puts the "Ray" in "Ray-vens."
Flacco may be a franchise quarterback, but it's been pretty clear the last few years -- and reiterated the last couple weeks -- that the Ravens go on offense as does all-purpose tailback Ray Rice.
Since 2009, Rice ranks second in the NFL in cumulative yards from scrimmage (4,679), which breaks down to 120 yards per game -- only Houston's Arian Foster has more -- and his 25 games of at least 100 yards from scrimmage leads the NFL over the last three seasons.
The last two weeks, though, Rice has failed to tally 100 yards. In that abysmal display at Jacksonville (a 12-7 loss), Rice rushed just eight times for 28 yards and totaled a mere 64 yards from scrimmage. Rice's next-lowest total of the season came Week 2 at Tennessee, with just 96 yards. Coincidentally (or probably not), that was Baltimore's only other defeat.
Last week, Baltimore was down 24-3 at the half against the Cardinals until Rice scored three straight rushing touchdowns in the comeback.
Rice needs to get going early rather than late in this game.
3. A Pro Bowl parade of injured linebackers.
James Harrison, one of the best outside linebackers in the league, has missed the last four games with a broken orbital bone in his face and, though he practiced this week, is not expected to play against the Ravens. Ditto for James Farrior, who tore a calf muscle two games ago and could be out of the lineup another month.
Those are two really good linebackers down.
Well, guess what? This week, the Steelers linebackers might as well make a "Next Man Up" how-to video after LaMarr Woodley, who sacked Tom Brady twice last week, will likely miss this game with a hamstring injury.
That makes three of Pittsburgh's four starting linebackers out, with Jason Worilds, one of the corps' top backups having missed the past four games due to a sore thigh. Worilds, though, could return Sunday and join Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and Stevenson Sylvester in the lineup.
No one selected McClain in the 2008 draft, so the linebacker from Syracuse started his NFL career with the odds stacked against him. So what else was new? McClain grew up in Philadelphia, spending much of his childhood crammed with his family in a Salvation Army shelter. Where that didn't toughen him up, boxing in the Golden Gloves did. By the time he got to Baltimore, McClain was used to obstacles. He was the lone undrafted rookie to make the team in '08, earned a starting job alongside Ray Lewis in '10 and last week against Arizona had his first career interception to set up the Ravens' go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown. Here are excerpts of his chat with SI.com.
You're kind of an underdog story on that defense, aren't you?
"Honestly man, in my life I've been so used to people telling me what I couldn't do. I've just been raised and brought up never to think you don't have a chance if you believe in yourself. Without that sort of thinking, you've already lost. ... When I came in, I think they had about 15 linebackers. Everybody was like, 'Well, there's no way he's going to make it.' But I never really looked at the numbers too hard. I went out trying to make at least one play every day, knowing that doing that would make somebody look at me."
At halftime last week, there had to be people around the league asking, "What's wrong with the Ravens?" Especially after that horrific game the week before at Jacksonville. So, is there anything wrong with the Ravens?
"There's nothing wrong with the Ravens. We're a football team. There are ups and downs in a season. There are times when football teams do something amazing and people say, 'Yeah! They can't be stopped!' And there are times when football teams do something bad and the same people say, 'Oh man, they're not that good!' It's just the game. ...
I think teams really need games like that to define themselves. If you went undefeated all the way to the playoffs, or you play great all season, you just may be living a lie. You need to be challenged [and] not just pound on everybody. You need adversity to see how the team responds. And sometimes you need a loss just to humble you. It's the best of both worlds. Some may think it's best to be world-beaters, but I believe in adversity because of my life and what I've been through. It builds character."
You have a number of community-relations endeavors where you are giving back to people. Is that because of that adversity you faced in your life?
"My involvement with the community is rooted from my background, yes. I'm involved in a lot of things. Like I have my '53 Families' coming up. I give away 53 Thanksgiving meals to families and then give them all a full meal to take home and cook themselves.
"I do stuff for the United Way. I have a free football camp. I really enjoy talking at schools. I just really, really believe in putting it back into the earth. I wasn't fortunate enough to have a lot of people who believed in me or gave me much. If I did, maybe I would've ended up a different person. But I believe in giving kids the opportunity to see the world is bigger than what you see right in front of you. I want to let them know that I've been there and that you can be somewhere else."
Is it some prerequisite for a kid who grows up on the streets of Philly to box in the Golden Gloves?
"Some people would say it is -- and it's basically true. Philadelphia is a hard city. A lot of cities are hard cities. But Philly is one of the toughest and what better way to show you can hold your own than in a ring, one on one?"
And what better time to make a statement to the rest of the NFL than this Sunday against the Steelers and a chance to sweep the regular season series in Pittsburgh?
"Oh man, this is a game, a rivalry, that is everything everyone probably imagines it is. It's the most intense game you will play all year -- and fortunately for us, we get to play it twice. Sometimes three times. It's intense. It's physical. It's 'til the whistle is blown. It's legitimate dislike for the opponent. There is no hyping it. It's real football, the way it's supposed to be played. You hit me, I hit you and we just punch each other in the face and let's see who falls first."
Everyone knows this slobber-knocker, blue-collar rivalry starts with defense, so it should come as no surprise the two are so evenly matched when it comes to defensive numbers -- except one. It is nothing short of stunning that the Steelers, with a defense ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL, have forced a measly, league-low three turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery). Maybe just as amazing is the fact their defense has been good enough to offset the lack of takeaways (not to mention the offense's 13 giveaways and minus-10 turnover ratio) and helped the team to an AFC-best 6-2 record.
There may not be two teams that know each better than these guys. Or hate each other as much.
"There's no edge here, so let's just go play," Starks said. "Put your cards on the table and see who blinks first."
With all due respect to Starks, Heinz Field should be an edge. And you just know the Steelers have been stewing since that embarrassing last meeting. But there may be one other edge.
Curtis Painter. Rex Grossman. Matt Moore. Blaine Gabbert. Those are the quarterbacks among the company Flacco is keeping at the bottom of the passer efficiency rankings as the Ravens hit the halfway mark of the season. Flacco just doesn't need Rice, he needs to play better.
Along with his 75.4 rating, Flacco has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes, been sacked 16 times and, with apologies to Torrey Smith, is still looking for that home-run threat. The Steelers, even with all their health issues, won't be a very nurturing, get-well bunch, especially at home.
Pick: Pittsburgh 19, Baltimore 10
Last week's pick: Pittsburgh 31, New England 27Last week's result: Pittsburgh 25, New England 17Season record: 7-1