As recently as two weeks ago, the Steelers' upcoming home contest against the Ravens did not appear to have much significance beyond it being a rivalry game. That is not the case now, not after the Steelers won their last two games to crawl back into the AFC playoff picture.
Pittsburgh (5-7) can further solidify its status as a legitimate playoff contender if it can defeat Baltimore for a fifth straight time. That's right, the Ravens have not defeated the Steelers this decade. Baltimore's last win over Pittsburgh occurred in Week 17 of the 2019 season, when the Steelers offense was quarterbacked by the immortal Devlin "Duck" Hodges.
Baltimore (8-4) will enters Sunday's game after escaping with a 10-9 win over the visiting Broncos last Sunday. Tyler Huntley, who played the final three quarters after Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury, provided the game-winning score with his 2-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left. With the win, the Ravens remain in front of Cincinnati (8-4) for first place in the AFC North by virtue of Baltimore's Week 5 win over the defending AFC champions.
Even with Jackson out for Sunday's game, the Ravens pose a formidable threat. Huntley, who already has one career start against the Steelers, went 27 of 32 passing last Sunday against one of the NFL's top defenses He also ran for 41 yards on 10 carries that included his game-winning run. Baltimore has one of the league's top tight ends in Mark Andrews along with an up-and-coming receiving corps that includes Devin Duvernay, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
The strength of the Ravens is their ninth-ranked scoring defense that features a fierce pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary. Ageless wonder Justin Houston leads Baltimore's pass rush with nine sacks, while defensive backs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Williams are tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece.
It goes without saying that the Ravens roster also includes arguably the greatest kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker. The five-time All-Pro is enjoying another stellar campaign. He's made a league-high 25 field goals this year and has converted on all but one of his 29 point-after attempts.
With all of that being said, there is a reason why the Steelers are two-point favorites. For starters, the Steelers have a healthy starting quarterback in Kenny Pickett, whose play has continued to improve in what has been a solid rookie season. In general, the Steelers offense has seen dramatic improvement over the past several weeks, particularly on the offensive line. The improved line has led to better play from Pickett as well as a vastly improved running game. In fact, Pittsburgh has averaged nearly 158 rushing yards per game since Week 8, the fifth-highest in the NFL over that span.
Defensively, the Steelers have been buoyed by the return of T.J. Watt. Pittsburgh is 3-1 since Watt returned to the lineup after going 0-7 without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The Steelers defense has also enjoyed the emergence of third-year linebacker Alex Highsmith, who recently became the 16th player in franchise history to record at least 10 sacks in a single season. Pittsburgh's secondary continues to be anchored by free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is putting together another Pro Bowl season.
Sunday's game is big for both teams. It's also an important game for several other teams that are looking to improve their playoff positioning. Let's take a look at the biggest ramifications regarding Sunday's game.
Steelers playoff positioning
Pittsburgh is currently sitting as the 11th-seeded AFC team. They'll have to hurdle over four teams over the season's final five weeks in order to grab the AFC's final playoff spot for a second consecutive year.
The Steelers entered this week with the same 5-7 record as the Browns, who they will play in Week 18 season's final month. The Rams did the Steelers a big favor with a comeback win over the Raiders on Thursday night, dropping Las Vegas to 5-8. They're two games behind the Jets, Patriots and Chargers, who are currently the 7-9 seeds, respectively. The Patriots' and Jets' wins over the Steelers, however, make both teams harder to jump as Pittsburgh won't win a tiebreaker with either team.
Pittsburgh's 2-6 conference record also doesn't do them any favors. So, in order for the Steelers to truly have a shot at making the playoffs, running the table -- which could give them a 10-7 record -- is obviously their best bet. A 9-8 record gives them a puncher's chance, but that requires a meltdown from the Jets and other teams fading down the stretch.
The Jets and Chargers are the Steelers' biggest competitions for the seventh seed. New York technically owns a 2.5-game lead over Pittsburgh, while the Chargers are currently one game ahead of the Steelers but hold the main tiebreakers. Los Angeles only has two games left against teams with winning records, so the odds of the Chargers finishing with fewer than nine wins appears to be slim.
There's also the chance that the Ravens -- who are currently holding on to the AFC's third spot -- collapse late in the season for a second straight year. Remember, Baltimore started 8-3 last year before injuries led to an 0-6 finish. A win over Baltimore on Sunday would put a dent in the Ravens' playoff hopes while narrowing the gap between them and Pittsburgh. It would also give the Steelers a much-needed win over an AFC team.
AFC North standings
Rest assured that Bengals fans will be cheering hard for the Steelers on Sunday. A Ravens loss and a Bengals win over the Browns would give Cincinnati sole possession of first place in the AFC North. After an 0-2 start, the Bengals have won four straight behind a significantly improved offensive line and the MVP-caliber play of quarterback Joe Burrow.
Wins by the Bengals and Steelers would also move Pittsburgh up to sole possession of third place in the AFC North. It would also move them ahead of Cleveland in the AFC standings.
Race for No. 1 seed impacted
The Ravens can all but kiss their hopes at getting the AFC's lone playoff bye goodbye if they lose on Sunday. Conversely, a Bengals win and a Ravens loss would put Cincinnati in a position to steal the bye from either Buffalo or Kansas City. Buffalo (9-3) currently holds the edge over Kansas City (9-3) for the coveted bye by virtue of its Week 5 win over the Chiefs.
The Bills host a Jets team on Sunday who upset them back in Week 9. Kansas City hosts a Denver team that hasn't beaten the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes under center. If the Jets can upset the Bills again, coupled with wins by the Steelers and Bengals, Cincinnati would be deadlocked with Buffalo for the No. 2 seed. In this scenario, the Steelers would gain ground on the Jets, who appear to be falling back down to Earth after their 5-2 start.
What this all means
At the end of the day, the Steelers basically need to win as many games as possible. They also need the Ravens, Jets, Patriots, Chargers, Raiders, and Browns to lose as many games as possible. The Ravens, Jets, Browns, and Chargers (who host Miami) are underdogs entering Sunday's games. If the oddsmakers are right, the Steelers will gain ground on each of these teams as long as they take care of business at home.