Next stretch of games could have major implications for Ravens

Baltimore RavensSportsFootballPittsburgh SteelersJohn HarbaughJoe FlaccoOakland Raiders

Like most, if not all, NFL teams, the Ravens cling tightly to the tenets of the 24-hour rule, allowing them only one day to celebrate victories while briefly pushing back the arduous task of preparing for the next challenge that lies ahead.

But as his teammates filtered out of the locker room Sunday following a 55-20 victory over the overmatched Oakland Raiders, Ravens cornerback Cary Williams let down his guard for the first time all afternoon. A trip to Pittsburgh and a matchup with the hated Steelers was already on his mind and there was no point hiding it.

"I'm champing at the bit, man," Williams said. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime to go out there and perform and play at a high level."

Williams, who said he loves playing at Heinz Field and predicted that "it's going to be hell out there" Sunday, essentially acknowledged what most people were already thinking during a game that was all but over by halftime with the Ravens well on their way to their highest scoring output in franchise history.

It was time to start thinking about the latest chapter of the Ravens-Steelers' rivalry, which many football pundits consider the best in the sport.

"I think it's the best week of the year because it's where we feel our most comfortable probably. [It's] where I feel the most comfortable and I think our players and coaches feel the same way," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday . "That's a defining type of a rivalry. It means so much to both teams. We like being in this week, we love playing these guys, we love the preparation for these guys. I'd say it's the best week of the year for both of us."

It also may be the most important. For the Ravens, the next three weeks, which features two games against the Steelers and a road contest versus the San Diego Chargers, will go a long way toward defining their season, and whether they are going to coast to an AFC North title or do things the hard way. The latter could mean going on the road for the playoffs or battling to even get into the postseason.

As it stands, the Ravens (7-2) hold sole possession of first place over the Steelers are now 6-3 after beating the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night. Despite a defense that has struggled with injuries and gives up yards at an alarming rate and an offense that has been prolific at home and horrific on the road, the Ravens are off to their best start in the Harbaugh era.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have won four straight games, their defense overcame a slew of injuries to rank first in the NFL and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may be having the best season of his career. But Roethlisberger left Monday night's game with a shoulder injury, and his status for Sunday is unknown.

"We focused all week on the Raiders, but in the back of our minds, we knew the Steelers were coming," Ravens left tackle Michael Oher said. "They have been having a lot of success as of late, and it's going to be a good game next week, but we look forward to it."

Harbaugh said that when he first saw the Ravens' 2012 schedule and noticed that his team would play the Steelers twice in three weeks with a tough road game in San Diego in between, his first reaction was: "Interesting."

"There are always quirks in the schedule, there really is and every team has got them," Harbaugh said. "That's kind of a quirk for us. That will be a big challenge for us but everybody has those challenges this year. That's ours. We'll just have to deal with it and make it good. … When the schedule first came out, we knew it was going to be an important stretch for us and here it is. Fortunately, we've been good enough to put ourselves in position to make it meaningful. Now, it's our job to make the most of it."

How much momentum and confidence the Ravens gained in their thrashing of the Raiders remains to be seen . Harbaugh called it a "positive thing" that the Ravens played as well as they did the week before the Steelers' game but agreed that doesn't "guarantee" anything.

Safety Bernard Pollard feels that the 55-point output puts a "target" on the Ravens' backs, and sets the bar high for the type of 60-minute football game that the team will need to play going forward. Quarterback Joe Flacco, however, didn't think anything from Sunday's demolition of the Raiders will carry over.

"I don't think that one game really predicts what's going to happen in the next game," said Flacco who threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns Sunday. "Once Sunday comes around, it's a completely different scenario, a completely different day. We still have to put the work in this week and go up there and play well. While we played very well [Sunday], and we should be happy about it, we've got to put it behind us and move on."

For Flacco, Sunday's game will mean returning to the site of arguably his greatest regular-season triumph. Last November, Flacco directed a 13-play, 92-yard drive that ended with him hitting rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland) for a game-winning 26-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds to play. The 23-20 victory completed a season sweep of the Steelers — their first since 2006 — on the Ravens' way to a division title and a first-round bye.

The Smith catch will undoubtedly be replayed on television all week as the Steelers and Ravens get ready for another game that carries significant implications.

"To me, if you love football, there's no greater place to be, playing there in that great stadium against that great organization," Harbaugh said. "Those games have always been great games. We've always felt that it is a rivalry and we'll continue to consider it a great rivalry. We're excited to go play them, we always are. We respect them. I suspect they feel the same way."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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Baltimore RavensSportsFootballPittsburgh SteelersJohn HarbaughJoe FlaccoOakland Raiders
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