Posted November 29, 2012 on AP on Fox
The Baltimore Ravens' banged-up defense has enjoyed a resurgence during the team's four-game winning streak. That has a chance to continue against a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that has struggled without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who appears increasingly likely to miss a third straight game. The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth - and perhaps the AFC North title - on Sunday when they try to beat the Steelers for the second time in three weeks and extend their home winning streak to 17. After escaping with a 16-13 overtime victory at San Diego on Sunday, Baltimore (9-2) remained one game behind Houston for the best record in the conference. The Ravens also took a major step toward a second straight North crown, which they can wrap up Sunday with a win over fading Pittsburgh (6-5) and a Cincinnati loss to the Chargers. "The thing our guys have done is, as a team, they've positioned themselves really well to take advantage of an opportunity,'' coach John Harbaugh said. "Every game makes the next game that much more important.'' Harbaugh's defense has bounced back after losing linebacker Ray Lewis (triceps) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) to midseason injuries. While the Ravens allowed 43 points to the Texans in their first game without Lewis on Oct. 21, they've given up a total of 58 points (14.4 per game) during their four-game winning streak. Baltimore had a season-high six sacks on Sunday while allowing a season-low 280 yards in nearly five full quarters against the Chargers. "We are improving on defense, and we improved throughout the course of the game," Harbaugh said. Baltimore's offense has done just enough to help the team win six of its seven games decided by seven points or fewer. Ray Rice finished with 97 yards on 22 carries at San Diego, but his biggest play was taking a short pass for a first down on fourth-and-29 with 1:37 left in regulation that helped send the game into overtime. Joe Flacco completed 30 of 51 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown, a solid road game for a QB who is averaging just 5.65 yards per attempt and has a 70.2 passer rating this season away from Baltimore. It's been a different story for Flacco at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens have won 16 straight - including January's divisional round victory over Houston - since a 13-10 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2010. Flacco has been especially good at home this season, averaging 322.4 yards with 10 scores and three picks there for a 108.3 passer rating. He's thrown five TDs without an interception in the Steelers' last three visits. Flacco completed 20 of 32 for 164 yards without a TD in Baltimore's 13-10 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 18. That was the Steelers' first game without Roethlisberger, who sprained his right shoulder and dislocated a rib against Kansas City six days earlier, and it was Byron Leftwich under center against Baltimore. Leftwich was hurt in that poor performance, leaving 15-year veteran Charlie Batch to face Cleveland last Sunday. The Steelers' offense struggled even more against the Browns, turning the ball over eight times in a 20-14 loss. It was the NFL's first eight-turnover game since St. Louis against New Orleans in 2001. "It's disgusting, and it's not something that we're all about here,'' said receiver Antonio Brown, who expects to return after missing three games with an ankle injury. "Hopefully, I can help bring back some order to this team.'' Roethlisberger returned to practice on Wednesday in a limited capacity, though it appears extremely unlikely he'll be ready to join Brown in the Steelers' offensive huddle Sunday. Pittsburgh, though, may get a big boost to a unit that leads the NFL in total defense (257.2 yards per game) and leads the AFC in scoring defense (19.1 points per game). Five-time All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, whose strip sack of Flacco was the key to the Ravens' last home loss, could play for the first time since suffering a right calf injury in Week 5. As stout as the Steelers have been defensively, they haven't taken the ball away. Pittsburgh has forced just 10 turnovers, tied for the second-fewest in the league. In two short weeks, Pittsburgh has gone from a team in the thick of the AFC North race to one tied with Cincinnati for the conference's second wild-card spot. "We have to figure out what we need to do,'' Batch said. "In order for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to start winning.'' The ground game has also fallen on hard times with the trio of Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman combining for 32 yards on 15 carries - and three lost fumbles -- on Sunday. Dwyer, who led Pittsburgh with 55 yards on 12 carries against the Ravens two weeks ago, will start in place of Mendenhall.
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