PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger knew what was coming. Call it the byproduct of nearly two decades spent in the familiar rhythms of an NFL season.
So before the question was even finished about the importance of Sunday's visit by AFC North-leading Baltimore, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback plunged into the answer.
“(Is this) a must-win? Is that what you were gonna ask?” Roethlisberger said this week. “It is. Everything moving forward has to be that way. That’s the hole we’ve kind of put ourselves in, that every game has to be the most important game of the year.”
None, perhaps, more important than this. The four-game winning streak that thrust the Steelers (5-5-1) back into the mix is now a distant memory. Three mostly listless weeks that include a tie with still winless Detroit and getting crushed in Cincinnati will do that.
The optimism of late October has faded into the harsh reality of early December. In a league where, as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin often puts it, you're either getting better or getting worse, the Steelers appear to be bingeing on the latter. And nobody is happy.
Not Tomlin. Not Roethlisberger. Not the steady stream of former players who have called the current group out for uninspired play. There's only one way to quiet the noise, and that's by summoning a sense of urgency, purpose and physicality that's been lacking at times during their wildly uneven season.
“There’s a number of times where we’re falling short and to acknowledge that is huge,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “But to learn from that is even better.”
Pittsburgh needs to be a quick study against the Ravens (8-3). Baltimore's offense has sputtered recently, but it has found a way to keep winning.
No matter how shaky the Steelers' defense has looked of late — they have allowed a staggering 180.5 yards rushing per game over the last month — Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson knows better than to look at the numbers and think somehow things will come far easier than they usually do when Pittsburgh is on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“For sure, it’s a rival game,” Jackson said. "We know it’s going to be an intense game, like it always is, and a very physical game, like it always is. I’m ready.”
He better be. Jackson is just 1-1 against Pittsburgh as a starter and is coming off a sloppy four-turnover performance against the Browns. The Steelers have done a solid job of keeping him in check — they forced him into two interceptions and two lost fumbles in a win in Baltimore last year — but allow they need to take a massive step forward or their final five games will be for little more than pride.
“If we don’t donate our time and really lock it on (Jackson), man, he’s going to have a field day,” Heyward said.
The Ravens are 13-2 in December dating to 2018, the best mark in the NFL. They did lose last year on Dec. 2 at Pittsburgh amid a COVID-19 outbreak that caused the game to be played on a Wednesday. It had been originally scheduled for Thanksgiving.
Jackson didn't play in that game. The last time he played at Heinz Field, he threw three interceptions in 2019 but Baltimore won anyway.
“I’ve played there twice, my rookie year and 2019, but last year, I had COVID. So, I know it’s going to be loud, loud as ever,” Jackson said. "I know some of our fans are going to be there, too. I know ‘Flock Nation’ is going to be at Heinz Field, but I just can’t wait to hear the noise, hear the atmosphere, smell it, feel it.”
This is the 30th meeting between Tomlin and Ravens coach John Harbaugh, including postseason. Only two sets of coaches have faced each other more often: George Halas and Curly Lambeau met 49 times, and Steve Owen and Lambeau met 31 times.
Tomlin leads the series with Harbaugh 15-14.
“We have a great relationship," Harbaugh said. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Tomlin, for the whole organization over there. I've got other friends in the organization over there."
Just not for three hours on Sunday.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
The Ravens are 6-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer, 4-1 in games decided by a winning score in the last 2:00 or in overtime, and 3-1 in games decided on the final play.
“I’ve just always had respect for their leadership over the years and their no-blink attitude,” Tomlin said of Baltimore. “I think that’s always kind of been reflective of that group. I don’t think that this year is any different.”
The Steelers have a similar resume, with one major caveat. When it's tight, Pittsburgh is competitive. When it's not, the Steelers are toast. Pittsburgh is 5-1-1 in one-score contests this season, but 0-7 in games decided by nine points or more dating to 2020.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Owings Mills, Maryland, contributed.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press