BALTIMORE -- Joey Porter won’t play tonight. Neither will Ray Lewis, Hines Ward, Bart Scott, Jerome Bettis, Ed Reed, et al.
Maybe they will watch as one of the best rivalries the NFL has to offer takes center stage again. This Steelers-Baltimore Ravens game, though, has a different feel to it, and it’s not because many of the men who made it such a heated rivalry no longer play in it.
Instead of two teams deciding which will head to the playoffs as AFC North Division champion and which will go as a wild-card entrant, either would be happy to make the playoffs at all.
Tied with 5-6 records, both desperately cling to the hope they can earn that sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. The previous time they both carried losing records into a late-season meeting was 1999, when were 5-7 for a meeting at Three Rivers Stadium.
The quarterbacks that day were Mike Tomczak for the Steelers and Tony Banks for the Ravens. Banks completed 8 of 26 passes, but Qadry Ismail caught six for 268 yards that still stands as a record against the Steelers (despite Josh Gordon’s best efforts Sunday in Cleveland). The Ravens won, 31-24, and finished 8-8. The Steelers, who scored the last touchdown of that game when Kordell Stewart caught an 11-yard pass from Tomczak, would go 6-10.
Since then, not a season has gone by without either the Steelers or Ravens making the playoffs, and they both have made it in three of the past five seasons.
Whether this one breaks that streak or not, at least the winner of the game tonight will have scratched back to .500 with a clearer shot at making the postseason.
“Usually, when these two teams play this late in the season, it’s for No. 1 in the AFC North,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark.
That spot belongs to Cincinnati, which at 7-4 holds a two-game lead over the Steelers and Ravens.
Unlike that 1999 game, this one holds much importance because both teams believe they can make the playoffs and make a run once they do.
“I feel like we can match up with anyone,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “As long as we play our game plan, I think we can be unstoppable.”
Indeed, both lumbering giants seem to have gathered themselves after early troubles. They have combined to win five of their past six games.
The Steelers are riding a three-game winning streak in which they have flipped their problems with turnovers and sacks from when they had too many on offense, too few on defense.
Baltimore, the reigning Super Bowl champion, has won two of its past three with an overtime victory against the Bengals and a near-skunking of another playoff hopeful, the New York Jets last week, 19-3.
Both teams have had their problems with the offensive line and the run game. The difference could come at quarterback.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore’s Super Bowl MVP, has not played that well, throwing 14 interceptions and 14 touchdowns. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, after a tough start, has been exceptional lately and raised his passer rating from the 70s to 92.2 with seven touchdowns and one interception in the past two games.
While the situation of both teams having losing records might be unusual, the Ravens and Steelers are familiar with having to win in December after difficult starts.
The Steelers did it most famously in 2005 when they won their final four to sneak into the playoffs as the final seed, then won the Super Bowl. The Ravens, however, swooned last December. They were in the hunt for the No. 1 seed, then lost four of their final five — starting with their loss to Charlie Batch and the Steelers Dec. 2 in Baltimore — to finish 10-6.
Yet, they rebounded to win four postseason games in a row to claim their second Lombardi Trophy.
“Our record hasn’t been what it is at this point in years past, but we’ve still been in the same situation” Flacco said. “We’re just keeping our heads down and trying to get better each week — and win the next football game.”
The AFC named Roethlisberger its player of the month for November, when he threw for 11 touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,188 yards and registered a 100.5 passer rating.
Ignoring the contributions of cornerback William Gay, the AFC named Troy Polamalu its defensive player of the week.
Polamalu had a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in Cleveland. Gay had a sack and forced a fumble on the same play that Will Allen returned 49 yards to set up a 4-yard touchdown that broke a tie just before halftime of their 27-11 victory against the Browns. Gay also returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers list LaMarr Woodley as doubtful for the game tonight. Brett Keisel and Shamarko Thomas are among those listed as probable.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.