View from Baltimore: A Ravens win not a sure bet

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It's certainly tempting to look at what happened to Ben Roethlisberger Monday and assume that the balance of power in the AFC North Division has shifted dramatically in favor of the Baltimore Ravens -- because that would seem to be a pretty fair assumption.

The loss of Big Ben to a rib-cage/shoulder injury might even be a watershed moment in the history of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry.

But if you think that means the Ravens will waltz into Heinz Field tonight and walk over the Steelers in the first of two head-to-head meetings over a span of 15 days, you might want to take a quick history lesson.

Roethlisberger has missed four games against the Ravens for various reasons, and the Ravens have taken advantage of his absence to win all four, but every one was a typical, hard-fought rivalry showdown that was decided by no more than six points.

There's no reason to think that tonight will be any different, although no one would be foolish enough to discount the impact of Roethlisberger's absence.

The oddsmakers certainly haven't. The Steelers were favored when the Week 11 betting lines opened. Now, it's the other way around. More specifically, it went the other way when it was learned Roethlisberger wouldn't play, which means the people who make their living figuring out what the score might be believe the Steelers would be about a touchdown better if Roethlisberger was healthy.

That's a big, big difference in this new era of NFL parity -- and it's something the Ravens need to exploit if they are to position themselves for another deep playoff run -- but they know it would be foolhardy to underestimate highly experienced backup quarterback Byron Leftwich.

"We can't take him for granted," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "This guy is very capable of going out there and shredding us."

Even without Roethlisberger, the Steelers remain a highly talented offensive team, and their defense has allowed the fewest total yards in the league. The Ravens' defense, meanwhile, is still adjusting to the loss of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb and could be vulnerable in the secondary if Leftwich gets enough time to spread the ball around to Mike Wallace, tight end Heath Miller and the rest of a deep receiving corps.

"I'm sure they have a whole offense up for him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You defend the offense. They've got weapons all over the field. They are arguably one of the most talented, if not the most talented, offenses in football."

Still, it's hard not to look at the dramatic change in the competitive dynamic of each of these teams over the past few weeks and think the Ravens have a big opportunity to solidify their position atop the AFC North.

Two weeks ago at this time, the Ravens were smarting from a one-sided loss to the Houston Texans and the Steelers were surging back into contention after a slow start. The Steelers survived an overtime scare Monday night from the Chiefs to win their fourth game in a row and remain one game behind the Ravens in the division, but the immediate implications of the loss of Roethlisberger and the uncertainty about his future have cast a shadow over the rest of their season.

The Ravens, perhaps because there is no such thing as an easy game against the Steelers, are looking at the game tonight the same way they would have if Big Ben had been heading into it at the top of his game.

"We're going to prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I don't think the game plan is pretty much going to change depending on who's under center. They're going to be who they are. They are going to do what Pittsburgh does. They're going to play Pittsburgh football."


Peter Schmuck writes for the Baltimore Sun.


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