Eisenberg: Why It Matters to Beat the Steelers


On the surface, the Ravens don't have a whole lot to play for Sunday when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium.

They've already secured a division title, the top seed in the AFC playoffs and home-field advantage throughout January. That's checking every box a team can check during the regular season.

With nothing tangible to gain, Sunday's season finale becomes, for the Ravens, the opposite of a "must win" contest. I guess we could call it a "don't have to win" game or a "you're still totally fine if you don't win" game.

So why do I get the sense that the Ravens really, really want to win?

Many will point to the obvious answer, that they want to knock the Steelers out of the playoffs. That's the ultimate motivating factor, right? Send a dagger straight to the heart of your biggest rival?

Sounds good. But honestly, I think that scenario is more important among the fans, front office and media than the players. Most of the Ravens haven't been in Baltimore long enough to get sucked into the vortex of intensity and emotion that is Ravens-Steelers.

With just a few exceptions, they weren't around when Ed Reed and Hines Ward were going at it. Hey, most current Ravens weren't even here for Antonio Brown's infamous "Immaculate Extension" touchdown in 2016, which knocked Baltimore out of the playoff race and also bah-humbugged Christmas that year.

It sounds great to suggest the Ravens see Sunday's game as a chance to exact revenge, to earn paybacks for that agonizing moment, but the reality is only 13 current Ravens experienced it. Forty of the 53 players on the roster either were on other teams or not in the NFL.

Sorry, I just don't think that's the team's top motivation Sunday.

With so much going for them after 11 straight wins, the Ravens are more concerned about themselves than the team on the other side of the ball. And with the playoffs looming, Sunday's game is a chance for them to polish their winning aura, bolster their confidence.

They're good. They know it. Everyone knows it. The Ravens have won 11 straight games playing a certain way, with what I'll call a pedal-to-the-metal approach. Their offense is built on being physically dominant. Their defense blitzes more than any other. Their head coach loves going it for on fourth down.

Put it all together and a palpable vibe emerges. The Ravens thrive on being aggressive and good, confident and good, a dominant Super Bowl contender that never lets up.

They love that about themselves. If they could beat the Steelers Sunday even with nothing to play for and difference-makers such as Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram II taking the day off, it would fit right into the narrative.

Hey, we didn't even put our best team out there and we still won.

A win would send the Ravens into the playoffs with a 14-2 record, the best in franchise history, and a 12-game winning streak, easily the longest in franchise history. It also would send the message that the Ravens are so good in 2019 that they can beat a quality team such as the Steelers with one hand tied behind their back.

The locker room would love it. Embrace it. Dance to it. Guaranteed, you'd see a post-game celebration as happy as any all year.

Granted, there's no downside if it doesn't happen. If the Steelers win, the Ravens would still finish 13-3 (equaling the best record in franchise history) and the end of their winning streak would be easily reconciled. No Lamar. Enough said.

Two weeks later, when they kick off what they hope is a long playoff run in mid-January, a meaningless loss in their season finale would be forgotten.

Admittedly, a win in Sunday's game also wouldn't be on many minds when the playoffs begin next month. But if you buy that the Ravens feed off being strong and confident and dominant, a team that thinks it can't be stopped, they can profit from beating the Steelers.

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