Playoffs start early for Steelers and Ravens

FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2016 file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws in the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in Cincinnati. The Steelers will host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Dec. 25. (AP
Gary Landers, File

PITTSBURGH (AP) When safety Mike Mitchell arrived in Pittsburgh in 2014, it didn't take long to get indoctrinated into his new team's particular distaste for the Baltimore Ravens.

''It was just you don't like Baltimore,'' Mitchell said. ''It was like growing up in the Cold War, you don't like Russia.''

Call it the byproduct of a decade-plus of trying to wrest the AFC North title from the other (save for the occasional intrusion by Cincinnati). The two teams that have claimed 10 of the 14 division crowns since the AFC North was formed in 2002 meet at Heinz Field on Christmas night. The winner earns a very direct path to the playoffs. The loser is almost certainly out.

''I'm assuming this is what the NFL wanted,'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Considering the occasionally wayward paths Pittsburgh (9-5) and Baltimore (8-6) took to get here, they'll take it, too. Both teams have endured four-game losing streaks that evaporated their early-season momentum. Both have rebounded late in the year. The Steelers have won five straight while Baltimore is 5-2 since its bye week, the two setbacks coming in competitive losses on the road to New England and Dallas.

Baltimore is 6-1 in its last seven meetings with Pittsburgh, including a playoff win at Heinz Field in 2014. In a 21-14 victory at home on Nov. 6, the Ravens completely shut down Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown for three quarters in Roethlisberger's first game back from knee surgery. The Steelers insist they're far better than they were six weeks ago. Then again, so is Baltimore, a team that seems to thrive when playing in front of a sea of yellow Terrible Towels.

''It is not about being comfortable there or not being comfortable there,'' said quarterback Joe Flacco, who is a respectable 5-6 in Pittsburgh. ''It is just about the fact that it is a big game in a high-pressure situation. They don't like us, and that is what it is all about.''

The Steelers can lock up the division and earn a third straight playoff berth with a win. Baltimore needs to top Pittsburgh, then win in Cincinnati on New Year's Day to return to the postseason after missing out in 2015. Just another layer to add to a combustible mix on a day designed to celebrate peace and joy.

''There is a professional hate with each other,'' Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith said. ''It is also (that) the Pittsburgh and Ravens rivalry is pretty fierce, pretty intense, hard hitting. It has been that way for a long time. Our fans hate them. Their fans hate us. It is a great divorce.''

Merry Christmas.

GROWING UP: Pittsburgh's defense found itself ranked 30th in October, but has risen all the way to eighth in yards allowed after limiting the Bengals to 222 yards in a 24-20 comeback win last week. While some of the credit goes to a weak stretch in the schedule (Cleveland and Buffalo), the Steelers are also benefiting from the rapid maturation of rookie defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis and rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave.

''They're finding their rhythm,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''They're finding what works for them. I think when they do that, and as they continue to do that, it's reasonable to expect a more consistent floor in their performance, and a higher ceiling in their performance. And we've been increasingly getting that from him.''

SHORT-HANDED SECONDARY: The Ravens will probably be without cornerback Jimmy Smith, who sat out last week's game with a sprained ankle. Smith is Baltimore's best cover man, which means the Ravens will have to alter coverage on Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown.

''It's going to be tough with Jimmy or without,'' safety Eric Weddle said. ''They present so many challenges and matchups across the board.''

Roethlisberger has seen enough of the Ravens to know what Smith means to the team.

''If he is not going to be out there, you take away one of the best in the business,'' Roethlisberger said. ''Of course it is a little different. But they are still one of the best defenses in the NFL.''

SMITH COUNTDOWN: Smith could be playing in the penultimate game of his outstanding career.

The 37-year-old intended to retire last year, but tore his Achilles tendon in Week 7 and decided to return for another season. He's made the most of it, catching 60 passes for 686 yards and four TDs. He isn't getting nostalgic just yet.

''I try not to. I just try to be in the moment,'' Smith said. ''I try not to think too far ahead. I try not to make this game more than it already is, which is a lot. You just try to narrow your focus, make it play by play, day by day, game by game.''

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AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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