When trying to figure out what's going to happen in a toss-up game, I always take into account a football axiom almost as old as leather helmets:
Who needs it more?
It's not a 100 perfect foolproof predictor, but in a sport so emotional and physical, a concrete reason to play hard can make all the difference.
Applying the question to Sunday night's game between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers assumes that it is, in fact, a toss-up game. Some may doubt that. Winners of seven straight games, the Steelers are three games ahead of the Ravens in the standings and whipped Baltimore by 17 points at M&T Bank Stadium in October. That doesn't sound like a toss-up.
But there's also reason to believe the game will, in fact, be as competitive as NBC hopes for its Sunday Night Football stage.
The Ravens, winners of three straight games, were without two of their main pieces when the teams met earlier. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was out with an injured foot and the Steelers took full advantage, running all over the Ravens' interior defense. That interior has been stout since Williams returned. And in October, running back Alex Collins was still barely playing, yet to emerge as one of the Ravens' most explosive offensive pieces. He has become a difference-maker.
Although they're underdogs by nearly a touchdown, the Ravens have a long history of playing close games with the Steelers and winning their share. And now, by the way, it's the Steelers who are missing an interior defensive centerpiece, their leading tackler, linebacker Ryan Shazier, out indefinitely with a serious back injury.
So let's get to the big question mentioned above: Who needs the win more?
From a practical standpoint, oddly enough, neither is desperate. If the Ravens lose, they're still likely to make the AFC playoffs as the No. 6 seed as long as they win their last three games against opponents with a combined 8-28 record. The Steelers, meanwhile, are vying for the No. 1 seed, and even if they lose Sunday, they can still claim the inside track by winning at home against the New England Patriots a week later.
But while neither team absolutely, positively must win Sunday night, there's one major difference in their circumstances.
With a 10-2 record, the Steelers have already passed muster as serious Super Bowl contenders. No matter what they do in December, they'll be seen as legitimate.
The Ravens haven't attained that level of respect. They were under .500 as recently as mid-November. Their offense has coughed and sputtered so regularly that many experts, and perhaps even many of their own fans, already dismissed them as serious Super Bowl contenders.
But if they go into Pittsburgh and win Sunday night, everything changes.
If you can take down the Steelers at Heinz Field in December, by definition, you warrant respect as a team capable of a January run. That's what's on the table for the Ravens Sunday night – the possibility of being promoted in the public's eyes from "nah, not likely " to "OK, things are getting serious."
Even more importantly, a win would bolster confidence within the locker room. While the Ravens have navigated their ups and downs with level heads this season, seemingly never losing faith, I'm guessing they've wondered at times themselves if their pieces would ever fit together into something substantial. Winning on Sunday night would definitively quash those concerns.
I understand, of course, that the Ravens won't be contemplating these matters while they play. When Joe Flacco drops back to pass, he won't be thinking, "I really need to complete this because we can prove ourselves!" That might be the last thing on his mind.
But at the same time, little motivates a team more than the possibility of earning respect, attaining more stature, surprising people who may have doubted you. It can be a useful mindset going into a game, and it's right where the Ravens are – a pretty good place to be mentally, all in all.
That's what separates these two teams. One has already earned its stripes as a bona fide contender. The other wants those stripes. If that makes a difference Sunday night, it actually wouldn't be so shocking.