On Monday, Ravens head coach **John Harbaugh** classified this Sunday's matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers as incredibly important - and that's not necessarily because of the playoff and AFC North implications.
On Wednesday, the players echoed his sentiments.
The Ravens know the upcoming contest has a lot riding on it, even if those reasons may go largely unsaid in the locker room.
But considering the 10-3 Steelers are one game ahead of Baltimore (9-4) in the division as the season winds down, it's not hard to figure out why this weekend is important.
"It's self-explanatory," said wideout **Derrick Mason**. "If we win, then we have the same record. If we don't, then they're two games above us, and then we've got to work even harder.
"This is the way we want it. After we played them the first time, we knew - if we did what we had to do throughout the season - that we would have the opportunity to be in this position again to try to get a game up in the division. So, we're right where we want to be."
Even though that first battle (Sept. 29) resulted in a 23-20 Steelers win in overtime at Heinz Field, there were some positives to come out of it. The Monday Night Football showcase was rookie quarterback Joe Flacco!(/team/roster/joe-flacco/3e20766f-6520-4ca1-9901-44389aaea8b8/ "Joe Flacco")'s first road test, and the Pittsburgh faithful came out in full force to rattle the first-round draft pick.
Flacco was sacked five times and did lose a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, but he also led comebacks from two separate deficits, the last a nine-play touchdown drive that tied the game with 4:02 on the clock.
Meanwhile, Baltimore's defense held the Steelers to only 69 total rush yards, in addition to notching one interception and three sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It took a 46-yard field goal in extra time to fell a young and scrappy Baltimore team, and it played a role in how Harbaugh's plucky squad would respond to adversity, especially late in the season when the Ravens rattled off seven victories in eight games.
"We thought we played a pretty good game last game and let it get away from us," Flacco stated. "Both teams in this game feel like they have a good team, and it's up to us going out there this week and proving who has the better team."
There is a familiarity to these rivals that stems from playing each other twice a year since 2000, but there is also a sense of newness that comes with the weeks of maturation - 10 games, in fact.
That goes for Flacco, a new offense that has found an explosive identity in recent games as it grows under coordinator **Cam Cameron** and even a defense that has lost multiple contributors to injuries since then.
"As a team, you can't grab that much from it," said linebacker Ray Lewis!(/team/roster/ray-lewis/1c6d5ed3-fe49-4a89-a6b5-9e358e906ae7/ "Ray Lewis"). "We're a totally different scenario; we have totally different guys. We had, I think, **Chris [McAlister]** at the time, we had **[Dawan] Landry** at the time. All that changes now. You had a younger Joe Flacco. Now, you have a totally different team, a much more mature team."
Lewis was quick to note how the Steelers have also changed. Pittsburgh is one of the hotter teams in the league at this point. After starting out 6-3, the Steelers have won their last four games. In addition, the Steelers have taken over the mantle of the NFL's top-rated defense, a spot Baltimore occupied earlier this season.
"It speaks for them, as well," Lewis added. "They definitely have a more mature team this late in the season. I think it's a totally different game that you're playing."
Still, the fact that these clubs have played each other 25 times leaves room for some familiarity, especially with the many veteran players and coaches that have been a part of that history.
"I think a lot of it is familiarity, because it's usually us or them coming down to the division lead," explained linebacker **Jarret Johnson**, who has faced the Steelers 10 times. "Obviously, they've had the upper hand the majority of the time, but when we're in there, we're a tough contender, and this year's the same thing."
The Ravens bring a five-game home winning streak against Pittsburgh to M&T Bank Stadium with a chance to at least pull even with the Steelers, who are 5-1 on the road this year.
But Baltimore's road to the postseason would hardly be finished with just one victory. The Ravens would not only have to beat the Steelers, but also win one more than Pittsburgh over the remaining two contests to gain the AFC North crown.
With Sunday kicking off such a weighty three-game span, the Ravens are looking forward to another classic meeting.
"I don't think I need any extra boost for this one," linebacker Terrell Suggs!(/team/roster/terrell-suggs/ad26be43-1380-45f1-b047-a91e850d9761/ "Terrell Suggs") said. "Probably since the 2006 playoff game [vs. the Colts], this is the biggest game I've played in. What better place to do it than in our own backyard at M&T? It's going to be exciting.
"I think the football gods have blessed us to have an opportunity like this, to have a game this late in December of this magnitude. Everybody just can't wait for it, so it's going to be good. I think both teams will be ready, and both teams are going to put on one heck of a show."
Sure, the Ravens have always taken things one game at a time, but this one has all the makings of a hit series. **