HEISER: Steelers-Ravens rivlary still fierce, but slips

Steve Heiser
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens face off on Sunday.
  • The AFC North rivals will meet at 1 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
  • The Steelers lead the division at 4-3, while Baltimore comes in at 3-4.

For York County pro football fans, Sunday may as well be a regional holiday.

That's when the county's two most popular NFL teams (sorry Eagles) collide for the first of their two annual AFC North brawls.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of county residents will make the short trek from the York area to Baltimore to watch the Steelers face off against their hated rivals, the Ravens.

Those who can't be among the 70,000-plus crowd in M&T Bank Stadium will surely watch on television (CBS, WHP Channel 21) for the 1 p.m. kickoff.

The days leading up to the game will feature tons of (mostly) friendly trash talk between the two passionate local fan bases.

What they'll see Sunday is two teams, both coming off bye weeks, who are fighting for their playoff lives.

The Steelers come in leading the mediocre AFC North at just 4-3, while the Ravens are just a game back at 3-4.

Rivalry slips some: There's really no denying that the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, while still extremely intense, is not what it once was.

There was a time, just a few years back, when the Steelers and Ravens absolutely ruled the AFC North, were locks to make the playoffs and were considered serious Super Bowl contenders. In both 2010 and 2011, for instance, both teams finished the regular season at 12-4.

In 2016, however, neither team resembles a Super Bowl contender, at least at this moment.

Baltimore, after a 3-0 start, is riding a four-game losing streak and is coming off a winless October. They've compiled that record against a schedule that, to be charitable, has been suspect. The Ravens' seven foes have a combined record of just 23-30-1.

After winless October, Ravens try to salvage season

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has been slightly more impressive, but has lost two straight after a 4-1 start. The Steelers have faced a much more formidable schedule than the Ravens. Pittsburgh's seven opponents have a 29-22-2 record.

QB question for Steelers: The Steelers, however, have an open question mark at the most important position on the field — quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off knee surgery that caused him to miss the team's most recent game, a 27-16 loss to a 7-1 New England team. He is seeing limited practice time this week, but his status for Sunday's game in Baltimore is uncertain, at best.

Given that background, this is almost a must-win battle for the Ravens if they hope to make the postseason. They've been installed as two-point favorites.

Roethlisberger may return earlier than expected

They're playing at home and may very well face a backup quarterback (Landry Jones) who doesn't scare anyone. In addition, Baltimore is 6-1 vs. Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger is sidelined.

If the Ravens lose, they'll drop to 3-5 and be on a five-game losing skid. It would be hard to imagine any scenario where they could regroup to make the playoffs, especially considering Baltimore is coming off a disappointing 5-11 season in 2015.

Right now, the Ravens just don't look like a playoff team.

Steelers in better shape: The Steelers, meanwhile, are in a better position.

They lead the division, and even with a loss on Sunday, will still be tied for the AFC North lead.

Roethlisberger, one of the top QBs in the NFL, is expected to return soon, even if he doesn't play Sunday.

And Pittsburgh is coming off a 10-6 playoff season and was considered a Super Bowl contender before the 2016 campaign began.

With a win Sunday, the Steelers will take firm control of the AFC North and a playoff berth would appear likely. A loss, however, would not be devastating, although a three-game losing streak would be cause for serious concern.

If Pittsburgh wants re-establish itself as a Super Bowl contender, it needs to beat a reeling Ravens team, even with Jones at quarterback.

Game will still be bitter and entertaining: Sunday's contest still promises to be entertaining. These bitter rivals still dislike each other with ferocity and the trash talk and questionable hits will, more than likely, be plentiful.

The Steelers will certainly look for some payback after a bad Baltimore team earned two surprising three-point wins over a playoff-bound Pittsburgh outfit in 2015.

Fans all across York County will surely be watching, either in person or on TV.

The Steelers-Ravens rivalry may not have the appeal it once did, but it's still appointment viewing for area NFL fans.

Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.