There is no shortage of storylines heading into Sunday's primetime matchup between the Ravens and Steelers.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out. The Steelers are looking to avenge the Ravens' thrilling comeback win at Heinz Field last season. Cornerback Jimmy Smith is out. Familiar faces likes Ray Lewis and Hines Ward will both be absent for the first time ever.
But perhaps the most significant point of the game – and maybe the most overlooked – is that first place in the AFC North is on the line.
"We are looking for a chance to – No. 1 – control the division," running back Ray Rice said.
The Ravens (7-2) have a one-game advantage over the Steelers (6-3), but a Pittsburgh win would lock the two teams up atop of the division with another showdown looming in two weeks. A victory for the Ravens would give them a two-game advantage with six games to play, creating some separation in the division and putting them in the driver's seat for the stretch run.
"It means something," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "It's probably going to come down to whoever wins our [two rivalry games] is going to win the division. You have to approach it that way."
The Ravens and Steelers always tend to play each other close, as seven of the last eight regular-season games have been decided by four points or less. Even with Roethlisberger out this week, the Ravens expect another close matchup.
"It's one of those games that will be played very well," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "It will be played very efficiently. It will be a rough, tough game – like they all are. That's how they are all played."
3 Matchups To Watch CB Cary Williams vs. WR Mike Wallace
The Ravens secondary will be tested this week, especially with J. Smith out. The Ravens will count on Williams to step up, as he is the team's top cornerback following the injuries to Smith and Lardarius Webb. Wallace is a home-run threat for the Steelers, and they could take some chances deep with Byron Leftwich's strong arm.
RB Ray Rice vs. Steelers Front SevenThe last time the Ravens went on the road – a Week 9 win over Cleveland – they pounded the ball on the ground with Rice. He had a season-high 25 carries in that game, as the Ravens slowed down the offense to get into a rhythm on the road. They could go with a similar approach this weekend, especially early in the game to chew up some clock and keep Pittsburgh's offense off the field.
WR Torrey Smith vs. CB Ike TaylorSunday's game will mark T. Smith's first trip back to Pittsburgh since his memorable game-winning catch last season. He currently leads the Ravens with seven touchdown grabs and 548 receiving yards, and the Ravens will likely look to use his speed to take a couple deep shots down the field. If quarterback Joe Flacco is able to hit Smith on some deep balls early, then that could open up Rice and the running game.
3 Questions To Answer
Which injured players will suit up?Both teams are dealing with significant injuries, and there are several players whose status is up in the air heading into Sunday. The Ravens are hoping to get defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee back in the lineup, while the Steelers hope running back Rashard Mendenhall is able to play. For Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and safety Troy Polamalu have already been ruled out. Depending on what happens with Ngata, McPhee and Mendenhall, their ability to suit up could end up having a big impact on the game.
Can the Ravens capitalize on Roethlisberger's absence?
Leftwich will start his first game in three years. The Ravens were adamant throughout the week that*he is more than capable of doing the job and that the Steelers offense won't change much with him at the helm. The Steelers could try to run the ball more to ease the burden on Leftwich, which will make it critical that the Ravens are able to stop Pittsburgh's running game. *Can the Ravens take their offense on the road? **
The story all season for the Ravens' offense has been the inability to duplicate their home success away from M&T Bank Stadium. After Sunday's 55-point showing at home against the Raiders, the offense hopes it can carry that momentum into Heinz Field. The Steelers have the top-ranked defense in the NFL, so the Ravens have a tall task in front of them, but duplicating their home success would go a long way in ensuring a Ravens victory.
RavensTotal Defense – 390.2 (27)
Rush Defense – 132.0 (26)
Pass Defense – 258.2 (26)
Points Allowed Per Game – 21.8 (13)
Total Offense – 354.1 (16t)
Rush Offense – 104.9 (20)
Pass Offense – 249.2 (13)
Points Scored Per Game – 28.2 (4)
Total Defense – 265.7 (1)
Rush Defense – 94.6 (6)
Pass Defense – 171.1 (1)
Points Allowed Per Game – 19.7 (7) Total Offense – 354.1 (16t)
Rush Offense – 103.8 (21)
Pass Offense – 250.3 (11)
Points Scored Per Game – 23.0 (18)