Though Joe Flacco’s status as an elite quarterback will remain in question, he certainly plays like one at Heinz Field.
The last two times the Ravens quarterback has been there, he has led them to game-winning touchdown drives to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers with less than 30 seconds to play.
Flacco will get his first shot at the Steelers this season in a nationally televised game on NBC's Sunday Night Football, but his counterpart Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder sprain/dislocated rib) won’t be there.
A lot of other star-power will be missing, too. The Ravens won’t have linebacker Ray Lewis (torn triceps) or one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb (knee ligament tear). The Steelers likely won’t have safety Troy Polamalu (calf), who had targeted this game for his return.
But something about Ravens vs. Steelers -- in the thick of the AFC playoff race, at night and under near freezing temperatures -- never gets old no matter the names on the uniforms.
"It always ends up being a little bit bigger deal than I’d like to think it is," Flacco said when asked about being in the featured game. "It’s just another game. I don’t really think it matters whether you play it at 1, 4 or 8 o’clock. But for some reason, it tends to matter a little bit."
Indeed, much is at stake. The Ravens (7-2), who have won six of the last seven meetings, lead the Steelers (6-3) in the AFC North by one game. These teams play each other twice in the next three weeks.
The Ravens’ offense has carried the load while the defense struggles to improve on its No. 28 overall ranking. It allowed more than 400 yards to the Raiders last week and teams to average 207 yards rushing during a three-game stretch.
But the Ravens do anticipate having tackle Haloti Ngata (shoulder) and end Pernell McPhee (knee) on the field for Pittsburgh. Both missed the Raiders game.
The Steelers’ defense is No. 1 despite not having Polamalu since Oct. 7 and losing linebacker James Harrison for three games while he recovered from knee surgery. Defense is where they could have a distinct advantage because the Ravens aren’t the same team on the road where they average just 17.5 points per game.
"We don’t concern ourselves with the injured ones. We concern ourselves with the readiness and the play of the healthy ones," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about his defense. "And the guys that have been healthy have delivered above the line of performance for us, and we expect that to continue."
How the Steelers play offensively, however, will differ. Leftwich doesn’t have the same skill-set as Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion. In his 10th season, Leftwich hasn’t started a game in three years. He has a long windup for his throwing motion. He also isn't as good at improvising by turning broken plays into big gains for Pittsburgh.
"Byron is not Ben," offensive coordinator Todd Haley admitted. "It's very important that we and he understand that. He can't go out there trying to be Ben. He needs to go out there and be Byron. …
"We're going to do things to cater to the strength of our players. Obviously, that will be critical when you talk about the quarterback position. We're going to cater to Byron's strengths, as opposed to trying to force square pegs into round holes."
That likely means simplifying the playbook and emphasizing a running game that hasn’t always been consistent. Rashard Mendenhall has been fully practicing all week after an Achilles injury and it appears he’ll be starting again. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have combined to post 100-yard rushing games in three of the last four weeks.
While Baltimore's defense has turned in uneven performances, it clearly is more confident with linebacker Terrell Suggs. This will be his fourth game back after missing the start of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles.
Suggs is commanding double-teams which is opening the door for others to make plays for the Ravens. That could mean little-known linebackers such as Jameel McClain, who took over for Lewis in the middle, or Paul Kruger, who had two sacks and an interception last week, making a name for themselves on a prime-time stage.
“It’s a good, old-fashioned alley fight. You need a good one of those every now and then. This is why the two teams don’t like each other, because we’re so similar," Suggs said. "If you look down the line in their team and our team, it’s pretty similar. So, it means a lot.
"This is why you play football, for games like this. You remember some games, but these are the games that you tell your grandkids about. You know, when we go down to Heinz Field and you see the towels, and you see the colors, you know you’re in a fight. ... As soon as we walk in their stadium, they’re going to lock the gates. But that’s what we want. We definitely want them to lock the gates behind us so we can get in there and we can have it out."