Monday, December 11, 2017

Steelers can clinch AFC North title against surging Ravens

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger insists these late-season get-togethers between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are "fun."

Really.

"When you play Baltimore you are going to get your head knocked off, they're going to knock your head off, you're going to try to knock theirs off, but you're going to help them up and respect it and say 'Hey great job, let's go at it again," the longtime Steelers quarterback said.

While many of the faces have changed over the past decade-plus, the stakes and the style of play between the AFC North rivals have not.

Neither, Roethlisberger stressed, has the level of respect between two teams that believe they've found a way to straddle the line between hard-nosed play and whatever transpired in Cincinnati last Monday when the Steelers (10-2) won their seventh straight in a messy and flag-filled 23-20 victory over the Bengals.

"I think there's always been, and don't want to say like a hatred, because you want to beat that guy but it's just like it's two kind of friends going at it in the playground," Roethlisberger said. "You battle each other out. At the end of the day you shake hands and say hey, look forward to next year."

Or, the surging Ravens (7-5) hope, maybe later this season.

Baltimore has emerged from an early funk to win four of five to get back into the playoff picture and needs a victory at Heinz Field on Sunday night to prevent the Steelers from capturing the division title for the third time in the past four years.

It's hardly far-fetched.

The Ravens are 4-1 in their past five visits to Pittsburgh, the only loss coming on Antonio Brown's "Immaculate Extension" last Christmas.

"Look, this game means something," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. "They are pretty set up (for the playoffs), to be honest with you, with their record. But it still has a lot of implications for us and even for them at the top of the AFC at this point. It is a game that has meant a lot pretty much every time we played it since I can remember."

Ravens receiver Mike Wallace broke into the league with the Steelers, so he's been on both sides of this rivalry.

Asked how he felt about the Ravens when he was with Pittsburgh, Wallace replied, "Hate! Hate! It was hate. But it was respect, too."

And now that he's with Baltimore?

"I don't hate them, it is all love," said Wallace. "When I was there, I had a great time. It was a great organization to play for. I am where I am today because of the opportunity of playing there. It is never going to be any hate, but at the same time, I play for the Ravens. So, on Sunday night, I want to make plays for the Ravens."

PLAYING FOR RYAN: Pittsburgh will be without inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in the first quarter against Cincinnati that left him in the hospital with the status of his burgeoning career unknown.

The Steelers have several options when it comes to a fill-in, from Tyler Matakevich to Arthur Moats to Sean Spence, though all understand filling the void left by Shazier will be difficult.

"He's a freaky athlete, you know that and what he does from a communication standpoint, from a productivity standpoint, it's not going to be easy," Moats said. "But I definitely feel like we have a great group of guys who always step up."

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: When the teams met in October — a surprisingly decisive 26-9 Pittsburgh victory — Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams was out with a foot injury. Williams missed four weeks in all, and Baltimore went 1-3.

Now that he's back, the Ravens are better equipped to handle Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 144 yards and two TDs in the first meeting.

"If you are going to run the Kentucky Derby, you want your biggest horse in the race," Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

"You don't want him in the stable, especially going against one of the premier backs and the premier rushing offenses in the league."

BAD JUJU?: Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will sit out while serving a one-game suspension for what the NFL ruled was an illegal blindside hit to Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Smith-Schuster caught a touchdown against the Ravens in October and his blocking on the outside has helped Pittsburgh's running game get going. Martavis Bryant, who has become more heavily involved in the offense since an unsuccessful trade demand earlier in the season, will get the majority of reps in place of Smith-Schuster.

DANGEROUS D: The Ravens lead the NFL in interceptions (22) and have seven non-offensive touchdowns, including safety Eric Weddle's 45-yard pick-6 last week against Detroit.

"That's a lot of points," Roethlisberger said. "They get after it and they have some really good football players so it's going to be a challenge for us."

One that might not be as stiff as it looked a week ago. Baltimore will be without veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith , who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance enhancers.

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AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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