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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (5-6) at Baltimore (5-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - While getting back to .500 isn't the ultimate goal for either the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens, it certainly is a good start to accomplishing the task of making the playoffs.
The Steelers look to continue their recent hot play and win on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in 63 years as they visit the rival Ravens.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are two of six teams tied for the AFC's second wild card position at 5-6. That also had the clubs two games back of the AFC North- leading Cincinnati Bengals.
While the Ravens have struggled to string together consistency all season, winning back-to-back games just once and not since Weeks 2 and 3, the Steelers have won three straight and five of their past seven following an 0-4 start.
Pittsburgh is coming off a victory over another division rival last Sunday, picking up a 27-11 road triumph over the Cleveland Browns. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 217 yards and completed touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, while William Gay took an interception 21 yards for a score.
Brown and Sanders both hauled in six passes total, with Brown notching a team- leading 92 yards.
"Right now we're playing playoff football," said Sanders. "We're not worrying about anything else."
Though Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon had a big game with 14 receptions for 237 yards, Pittsburgh's defense logged five sacks and recovered three fumbles in addition to Gay's pick-six.
The Steelers will now try to win on Thanksgiving for the first time since 1950 and are playing on the holiday for the first time since a loss at Detroit in 1998.
Pittsburgh is 1-5 all-time on Thanksgiving, while Baltimore will play on the day for the second time in franchise history. The Ravens and head coach John Harbaugh picked up a 16-6 win over San Francisco and John's brother Jim in 2011.
Baltimore has won two of three since a three-game slide and are trying to start up another win streak after recording a 19-3 win over the New York Jets last weekend.
Despite the windy conditions in Baltimore, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker connected on four field goals and quarterback Joe Flacco hooked up with Jacoby Jones for a 66-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
Flacco ended with 273 yards passing, while the Jets didn't score after a first-quarter field goal and ended with 220 yards of offense. The Ravens also recorded at least one sack for a 22nd game in a row, matching a franchise record.
"Our defense played really well. All three levels played exceptionally well," said Baltimore's Harbaugh.
In addition to the sacks, linebacker Terrell Suggs recovered a fumble and cornerback Corey Graham picked off a pair of passes.
"We knew going into the game that we were going to have to play good, solid defense," said Graham. "We wanted to be aggressive and to get our hands on the receivers and make (Jets quarterback Geno Smith) make tight throws, and we were able to do that. We were able to execute our game plan, make a lot of plays, and we just took advantage of the ones that came to us."
History says that this meeting will be an exciting one to cap the NFL's slate of Thanksgiving games. Nine of the previous 11 encounters between the Ravens and Steelers have been decided by three points, including Pittsburgh's 19-16 home victory on Oct. 20.
Shaun Suisham hit four field goals, including the winner from 42 yards out as time expired. It came just under two minutes after the Ravens had tied the contest when Flacco hit tight end Dallas Clark for a one-yard touchdown pass.
However, Pittsburgh is now looking to win three straight regular-season games versus Baltimore for the first time since a four-game series win streak from 2001-03.
The Ravens, though, have won seven of the past 10 meetings at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Flacco and Roethlisberger should get plenty of attention on Thursday night as both teams rank near the bottom of the NFL in running the ball.
Roethlisberger has thrown for at least 150 yards in the first half in five of his past eight games and last weekend surpassed the 3,000-yard passing for an eighth time. He is also just three touchdown passes away from passing Terry Bradshaw (212) for the most in franchise history.
Big Ben's success has helped Brown put together a career campaign. He has 80 catches for 1,044 yards and a career-high six touchdowns, becoming the fourth receiver in team annuals to reach 80 catches in a single campaign.
He has been a favorite target of Roethlisberger's, making at least five receptions in a club-record 11 straight games.
Like the Steelers, the Ravens don't score a bunch of points -- both teams are averaging less than 23 points a game -- and Flacco has been going without last season's No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin, traded in the offseason, and injured tight end Dennis Pitta, who had 61 receptions and seven touchdowns a season ago.
Torrey Smith has emerged as a top-level deep threat in an expanded role this season, with the wideout averaging 17.9 yards per reception and totaling 859 yards on just 48 catches.
However, running back Ray Rice continues to struggle in a season that saw him suffer a hip injury that held him out of Week 3. He is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and though he is second on the club with 37 receptions, he has just 175 yards for an average of 4.7 per catch.
Rice insists he is healthy, but he will have to get going if the Ravens are to be successful.
"It's still tough sledding," Rice said of the upcoming schedule. "We have to count them one game at a time, and I'm just glad the team was able to focus and get it done and not look past the Jets. Now, we have another challenge coming up."
The Ravens and Steelers both remain competitive because of their defenses, though Pittsburgh is yielding 118.8 YPG on the ground. The unit did hold Rice to 45 yards on 15 carries in the earlier meeting.
Of more concern for Pittsburgh may be Smith and Jones after the Steelers' secondary was lit up by Gordon. His big game helped Cleveland amass 312 net yards of passing last weekend against a secondary that is yielding 224.4 YPG.
The unit was able to overcome the yardage by forcing the ball loose on a number of occasions. Safety Troy Polamalu had two forced fumbles, recovering one, and Gay also knocked the ball free.
"It was definitely nice getting turnovers, but we gave up a lot of big plays on the back end. If we want to compete with the elite teams in this league, we can't do that," said Polamalu, who also had one of Pittsburgh's five sacks.
The Ravens have been solid all year long against both the run and the pass, and are yielding just 19.5 points per game to rank in the top 10. Graham's two picks gave him three on the season and Baltimore a total of nine.
Linebacker Elvis Dumervil had a sack versus the Jets and leads the Ravens with 9 1/2, just ahead of Suggs' nine.
Suggs had three of his club's nine sacks when the Ravens beat the 49ers on Thanksgiving.
Confidence is a big thing in the NFL. The Steelers have it right now; the Ravens don't.
"We should have a lot. We're playing for a great opportunity, a great opponent, and we know if we want to do what we set out to do, we're going to have to win on the road," said Brown.
Playing on a short week is usually a wild card, but both the Ravens and Steelers are pretty healthy and familiar with each other. This likely-close contest instead could just come down to which team is better.
Right now, that is Pittsburgh.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Ravens 16
11/26 15:56:39 ET
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