Make no mistake about what is going on in Pittsburgh this Sunday night.
This is no get-even game as far as the Steelers are concerned when they play host to their hated rival, the Baltimore Ravens.
This game, at Week 9 of the schedule, is for all the marbles as the winner will no doubt move on and — barring any unforeseen losses — end up winning the AFC North division.
Rarely are division winners crowned in the first week of November but that’s how high the stakes will be at Heinz Field.
Getting even, as far as the Steelers go, is just part of the ultimate prize and no doubt they will be motivated to seek revenge from the 35-7 pasting they received at the hands of the Ravens on the opening Sunday of the season.
Following this war, though, both clubs have relatively easy schedules for the remainder of the season, so it figures that whoever wins Round 2 wins the ultimate fight.
Of the two teams, the Ravens have the slightly tougher schedule with two games remaining against the surprising Bengals, plus a home game against San Francisco and a trip to San Diego. That’s it against teams with winning records.
The Steelers, meanwhile, also have four games left against teams with winning records, including two against the Bengals, plus road games against San Francisco and Kansas City.
The two teams could easily match each other over the remainder of the season, possibly even run the table, which is why this game is so important.
“I look at it like we’ve got to win because they’re not going to lose again if they beat us,” Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said earlier this week.
The buildup to the game, meanwhile, is like that reserved for the playoffs.
“That’s the beauty of their season and our season,” Ravens veteran linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We have to do what we have to do. But to get them out of the way in the first half of the season, why not get it on?”
Ultimately, what the Ravens accomplished by administering that beating in the opener was to make the Steelers a better team.
Following that game, Pittsburgh refocused and comes into this contest on a four-game win streak, including an impressive performance last week by easily disposing of Tom Brady and the Patriots 25-17.
In no way are the Steelers of Week 1 the team that hits Heinz Field on Sunday. This team is better prepared and more balanced on offence.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have been up and down since the Sept. 11 contest. On their way to a 5-2 recorded, they have produced a couple of stinkers with losses to both Tennessee and Jacksonville.
Doubts have resurfaced about the ability of Joe Flacco and whether or not he can reach the next level and be the quarterback of a championship team.
The answers to all the questions will be revealed Sunday.
“We are the two most physical teams in the NFL, and we are the only two teams that can play each other like that,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “When other teams try to come and do that, it doesn’t fare so well. We are so similar. They are our enemy, but even enemies can show respect. We do respect those guys over there. They are a good football team, but so are we.”
Let the game begin.
If we didn’t know any better, we’d swear that Terrell Owens had invaded Peyton Hillis’ body.
How else to explain the bizarre happenings that have occurred to Hillis this season? How else to explain his fall from grace, his descent from good guy, working-class hero to being a player that the Cleveland Browns can’t wait to drop.
In a weekend that has gone from bad to worse, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Browns are prepared to let Hillis walk via free agency when his contract expires after the 2011 season.
This on top of a Yahoo! Sports report that eight Browns held an intervention-style meeting with Hillis on Wednesday to discuss his sour attitude.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” one player said. “Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team, but now he’s like a different guy.
“It’s like he’s in a funk that he can’t get out of, and it’s killing us, because we really need him. And we’ve told him that. But we’re at the point where we just don’t know what to do.”
Last season Hillis was the darling of Cleveland and one of the feel-good stories of the year as the unheralded running back pounded his way to a 1,177 yard rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Stalled contract talks, however, have left a sour taste in the mouth of all concerned and it hasn’t helped that injuries and illness have kept Hillis in and out of the lineup to the point where his team loyalty has been questioned.
On Friday he re-injured his left hamstring in practice and will miss his third consecutive game.
It seems it’s all fallen apart.
STOP FAST FREDDIE
In preparing for their key battle against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the New York Jets will be focusing on Bills running back Fred Jackson.
Stop Jackson and you stop the Bills is the refrain that the Jets defence has been preaching all week as it prepares for the important inter-divisional game. It’s hardly revolutionary thinking as the Bills ability to run, Jackson’s ability to run, has been the key to the Bills offensive success.
“He’s one of their best players, so highlight your best player,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott told reporters. “He’s the key to their offence. He’s the motor that makes everything run. If you slow him down, you slow the offence down.”
Jackson, who has rushed for 721 yards, many of them big ones, and caught 27 passes for an additional 353 yards more, has drawn praise for all quarters.
This week that includes Jets coach Rex Ryan.
“He does all three things a back needs to do,” Ryan said. “He does all three extremely well, whether it’s running with the ball, pass protection and catching the football. He’s making big plays. He’s always been an excellent back, but this year he’s made some absolutely huge plays for them.”
Jackson’s production is no surprise for cornerback Darrelle Revis either.
“He’s always been productive when we played them,” Revis said. “In the past, he wasn’t a starter, but we knew what type of back he was. Actually, in the past we’ve thought he was better than some of the starters there, but now he has a starting role and he’s doing what he needs to do.”