When the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers play on Sunday Night Football, it will mark just three weeks since the AFC North rivals faced each other last. That was a 16-14 Ravens win on Dec. 11 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Ravens found a way to win without Lamar Jackson then, and will likely have to do it again this week — in primetime.
This one is at M&T Bank Stadium, an 8:20 p.m. start in NBC’s nationally-televised, high-profile time slot. The game was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, but the NFL — in search of a game to showcase nationally — just a few days ago “flexed” this Week 17 game, as permitted under league rules and the NFL’s contracts with television partners. The Ravens have already clinched a spot in the playoffs; the Steelers, at 7-8, have not been eliminated but have only a 3 percent chance of qualifying, per 538.
If history is any indication, the late game bodes well for the Ravens, who are 8-1 in Sunday night games at home under coach John Harbaugh. They’re also 19-2 in primetime games at home since Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008. Still, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is excited about visiting Baltimore for what he expects to be a rowdy atmosphere.
“When I got the call the other night that the game was flexed, man, I didn’t hate that. I love that,” Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh earlier this week. “If your games are not getting flexed this time of year, you’re not doing it right. You’re not in significant ones. Although we do respect their environment and the hostility of that environment on Sunday Night Football, we’re not going to hate the fact that we’re there.”
Perhaps that’s because Tomlin’s Steelers are 7-7 against a Harbaugh-led Ravens team in Baltimore in the regular season.
1. Lamar Jackson probably won’t play
It looks like the Ravens star quarterback won’t suit up for the fourth straight game while nursing a reported sprained PCL in his left knee.
Jackson didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday, indicating he most likely won’t be ready for game action. Backup Tyler Huntley has been getting the first-team reps, as he has for the past three weeks.
On Monday, Harbaugh was coy when asked if Jackson would practice or play this week. “We’ll just have to see,” he said. Harbaugh was similarly vague when asked if Jackson could play again this year. “Sure, of course,” he said.
With the Ravens (10-5) already in the playoffs, thanks to a 17-9 win over Atlanta in the freezing cold on Christmas Eve, they could afford to rest Jackson another week if they think they could win Sunday with Huntley. (They did against the Steelers three weeks ago, even after Huntley was knocked from the game in the third quarter and third-stringer Anthony Brown was called into action.)
The Ravens appear to be content to let Jackson get healthy for a playoff push, rather than try to get him on the field now in order to win and improve their seeding.
2. The Ravens will lean on their run game and defense — again
With or without Jackson, the Ravens will rely on a blueprint that has allowed them to go 3-1 the past few weeks beginning with the game against the Denver Broncos in which Jackson was hurt: a strong rushing attack and defense that has held opponents to under 14 points in four straight games and seven times this season.
Huntley’s game does not include throwing effective deep balls, and without a true threat at wideout, tight end Mark Andrews — the team’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns — is facing constant double-teams. Meanwhile, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are getting healthier behind an effective offensive line. Expect the Ravens offense, built to dominate time of possession, to rely heavily on its rushing attack again — even against a Steelers run defense ranked sixth in the NFL.
In their last meeting, the Ravens rushed for 215 yards, and Dobbins had 120 on 15 carries, a breakout game in his first action in eight weeks after having surgery on his reconstructed left knee to remove scar tissue. Against Atlanta on Saturday, Edwards led with 99 yards on 11 carries. Since Dobbins return to action, the Ravens are averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
“The backs that we have right now are seeing the hole very well, they hit it at the right time, and everybody else in front of them are working,” Mark Andrews said. “The guards are pulling, the tackles are working hard, it’s everybody. It’s the receivers outside, the tight ends are doing a lot. It’s just guys continuing to work, and that’s just the type of team we have. We have guys willing to do the dirty work to get big plays.”
The Ravens defense has also been a strength the past two months, outside of a fourth-quarter breakdown in Jacksonville back in October that was reminiscent of other blown second-half leads earlier in the year. Put the two trends together — strong run game and mostly strong defense — and the Ravens have outrushed opponents in 14 straight games, the longest such streak since the 2015-16 Carolina Panthers did it over 15 games.
3. There are playoff implications
This game matters to the Ravens’ postseason picture in two main ways.
First, in order to have a chance to win the AFC North and host a playoff game next month, the Ravens have to keep pace with the Bengals (11-4) then beat them next week in the teams’ regular-season finale. A Ravens loss and a Bengals win (on Monday night against the Buffalo Bills) would mean the Ravens can’t win the division.
Second, there’s a big difference between where the Ravens are now in the playoff picture — seeded fifth in the AFC, which means they would head to the lowest-seeded division winner in the first-round (currently the Jacksonville Jaguars) — versus being seeded lower and having to go on the road to play a tougher opponents like the Bills (12-3), Kansas City Chiefs (12-3) or Bengals again. The currently sixth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers are 9-6 and the Miami Dolphins, with a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens, are seeded seventh at 8-7.
4. Pittsburgh ‘grew up’ last week
After the Steelers beat the Raiders 13-10 on Christmas Eve on a 10-play, roughly two-minute, 76-yard scoring drive at the end of the fourth quarter, Tomlin said, “I think it was a grow-up evening for us tonight.” In particular, he was talking about the team’s young offensive core of quarterback Kenny Pickett, wideouts George Pickens and Diontae Johnson, running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth, who all made key plays down the stretch.
“We’ve just got a bunch of young guys that got some talent,” Tomlin said. “They’re getting better. They are good enough to win as that happens. We’ve just better keep rolling our sleeves up and keeping our head down, out mouth shut and working. We got a battle waiting on us.”
Tomlin also indicated this week the Steelers defense may have fixed, or at least learned from, the run-stopping issues it had in the tilt with the Ravens three weeks ago.
“More than anything, I thought we had a bad day,” Tomlin said. “Our run defense has been really solid over the second half of the year. It wasn’t reflected in our play that day. There’s nothing we can do about that. That tape’s in the can. We’re preparing for this tape that we’re going to put out on Sunday night... You’d like to think you learn lessons, but the application of those lessons really is the display of learning. So we’ll see.”
5. Harbaugh and Tomlin continue to make history
The Ravens and Steelers head coaches will meet for the 33rd time, the second-most for an NFL coaching duo behind Curly Lambeau and George Halas’ 49 meetings in the first half of the 20th century.
Funny enough, Harbaugh says, he and Tomlin’s linked history goes way back to the late 1990s. Harbaugh, who played defensive back in college at Miami of Ohio, was the special teams coordinator at the University of Cincinnati from 1989 to 1996 before joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998 in the same position. Tomlin, a wide receiver at William & Mary, was Cincinnati’s defensive backs coach in 1999 and 2000 before making the leap to the NFL in the same position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001.
“Mike and I have a really good relationship. [We’ve] known each other for quite a while,” Harbaugh said this week. “He’s a heck of a coach, and I have so much respect for him and what they do.”
Harbaugh then jokingly suggested an idea that has some reality-TV or at least halftime-show potential.
“I don’t know what kind of a receiver he was back in the day,” Harbaugh said of Tomlin. “I might not have been the best defensive back ever, but as I look at him right now, I feel like I’d have a chance to stay with him, I really do.”
This will be the 10th time Harbaugh and Tomlin square off — from opposing sidelines, at least — on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which includes a special Thanksgiving night edition in 2013.
Whatever happens, odds are the final score will be close. Twenty-three of the last 29 meetings between the Ravens and Steelers have been decided by one score, and 17 of them by three or fewer points, including 11 of the past 15. The Ravens are a 2.5-point favorite at most sportsbooks for this one.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.