At the conclusion of an up and down regular season, it all comes down to this for the Baltimore Ravens: Two more wins.
With just two weeks left in the regular season, the Ravens find themselves in the driver's seat, and in complete control over their playoff future. In week 15 with a chance to solidify their playoff destiny, they face their hated rival in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens got a significant boost last week, when seemingly all of the teams in contention for an AFC wild card spot lost. The Jaguars, Dolphins, Broncos, and Jets losses put the team in an excellent position this week to clinch a playoff berth with a win over Pittsburgh and losses by either Denver or Jacksonville.
After dismantling the Bears and Lions in successive weeks, the Ravens look to capitalize on the momentum of two huge home wins. In the midst of injuries and fatigue at the end of the season, the Ravens recognize that the next two games are more important than ever.
"We need a win," said running back Ray Rice. "It's clear cut. You know, we win, and we control our own destiny in the playoffs."
Rice, the NFL's number two running back in total yards from scrimmage, could be the key to a Ravens victory especially against the perennially stout Steelers run defense. Facing a depleted Pittsburgh team without Ben Roethlisberger, Rice ran for 68 yards on 19 attempts and no touchdowns on Nov. 29. With Big Ben back, and coming off a 503 yard onslaught versus the Packers, the Ravens will need a big day out of Rice.
Equally important, to the Ravens cause is the play of the secondary. With rookie Lardarius Webb likely out for the season, a banged up defensive backs unit hopes to contain the surging Roethlisberger.
Amidst rumors the team is looking at former Ravens Corey Ivy and Chris McAlister to come to the aid of the ailing secondary, the Ravens' pass rush will have the most impact on the outcome of Sunday's showdown. If the Ravens' defensive line can dominate the Steelers protection and knockdown the quarterback, the team will be in a great position to win.
Still, leaving Pittsburgh with a victory has eluded the Ravens in recent years. Heinz field in December will be cold and the Terrible Towels will be waving. Even if the Ravens do get a win Sunday, they will have to travel to Oakland to butt heads with the upset kings of the 2009 NFL season in week 17.
"I think our guys approach the fact that we control our own destiny as a challenge," coach John Harbaugh said. "It's well deserved. We have fought through a lot of adversity. We've lost some tough games that we would like to have won, and yet we bounced back."
In a game that in many ways define the season, it is this resilient quality that could determine the outcome. As the Ravens prepare this week for a familiar rival, it seems fitting to look back on a shirt that Linebacker Terrell Suggs wore throughout training camp. It read, "You bet your sweet ass I hate the Steelers!"
Ravens vs. Steelers in December with a playoff spot on the line. Does it get any better than this? I don't think so.