Why Pittsburgh Steelers' Thanksgiving Matchup Will Be an Instant Classic

Mike BatistaContributor INovember 28, 2013

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 80 receptions this season.
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 80 receptions this season.Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The nightcap of last year's NFL Thanksgiving triple-header was remembered for a "Buttfumble."

This year's Turkey Day finale will be remembered for so much more than that when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Baltimore Ravens (8:30 p.m., NBC).

Get ready for an instant classic between these AFC North rivals.

It won't be the first time the Steelers and Ravens play a memorable game. Eight of the last 10 meetings between these teams, including playoffs, have been decided by three points. Since 2008, 10 of their 13 games have been decided by four points or less.

Most of these games have been played with both teams well on their way to the playoffs. The AFC North title or a first-round playoff bye usually is at stake when the Steelers and Ravens meet this late in the season.

Not this year.

The Steelers and Ravens both are 5-6 and in a six-way tie for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. This game will have a postseason buzz because while a loss won't be a knockout blow to either team's playoff hopes, it sure will be a knockdown.

Pittsburgh appears to have momentum on its side. The Steelers have won three straight and five of their last seven, including a 19-16 win over the Ravens at Pittsburgh in Week 7. The Ravens have lost four of their last six.

On defense, the Steelers are playing with a tenacity not seen since 2010, the last year they reached the Super Bowl. They've forced seven turnovers in their last two games after forcing just six in the first half of the season. Of their 23 sacks this season, 10 have come during their three-game winning streak.

On the other side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, for the first time in his career.

Roethlisberger has thrown for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions over the past four games. He hasn't thrown an interception in almost three full games and has a passer rating of 92.2 for the season.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

It helps to have the NFL's leading pass-catcher as a target. Antonio Brown tops the NFL with 80 receptions this season and is second with 1,044 receiving yards.

Joe Flacco, meanwhile, has struggled this season. He's thrown 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a passer rating of 76.8.

Ray Rice, the Ravens' leading rusher, has 450 yards this season and is averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Even though Le'Veon Bell hasn't reminded anyone of Jerome Bettis, the Steelers rookie has better numbers than Rice, posting 455 rushing yards and a 3.2 yards-per-carry average.

The Steelers' offensive line is rounding into form. Roethlisberger has been sacked just once in the last two games and 36 times this season. Flacco, who has never been sacked more than 40 times in his career, has been sacked 37 times in 2013.

Oct 20, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro (66) pass blocks against Baltimore Ravens linebacker Pernell McPhee (90) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 19-16. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA T
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Ravens have been giving it right back, however. They've sacked opposing quarterbacks 37 times this season, tied for first in the NFL. Thursday night's game will reveal whether the Steelers' offensive line really is better or if it's still a work in progress.

For Pittsburgh's defense, the 33-year-old Ike Taylor has a chance to prove that his skills aren't eroding. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) Taylor has the ninth-worst overall ranking among NFL cornerbacks this season.

The Ravens likely will be throwing the ball his way an awful lot.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Wide receiver Josh Gordon #12 of the Cleveland Browns completes a pass for a first down while under pressure from cornerback Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 2
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Torrey Smith, the Ravens' leading receiver with 48 catches, is averaging 17.9 yards per reception this season. That's fifth in the NFL among receivers with at least 20 catches.

Flacco's highest completion percentage for a game this season (70.6) came at Pittsburgh. The Ravens converted seven of 14 third downs that day despite the loss.

Baltimore's home-field advantage will be heightened by the fact that the Steelers are playing two road games in five days. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers are the first team that's had to do that since at least 2008. The Ravens, meanwhile, have slept in their own beds for the last week.

The Ravens also will be playing with desperation. While the Steelers have three home games in December, the Ravens go to Detroit and Cincinnati and host New England. The Ravens need a split in their two games against the Steelers to have any hopes of winning a tiebreaker with them.

The Steelers have momentum on their side, and right now they have the better quarterback. But the Ravens will be at home and they need this win more than the Steelers.

It's a recipe for a Thanksgiving classic.


(Stats from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.)