They have faced each other to open the season, been the league’s showcase game on Monday nights, played for their conference’s berth in the Super Bowl, faced off in the playoffs, battled in a winner-take-all for division championships. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens have matched up in a lot of critical games in a bunch of marquee time slots since the turn of the century, a period in which their annual home-and-home series has become the NFL’s fiercest rivalry.
In 2013, though, the teams will break some new ground, and just maybe the NFL has found the antidote to the tryptophan coma that typically comes from eating too much turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
That antidote would be three hours worth of Steelers-Ravens, in Baltimore, on Thanksgiving night to be televised by NBC.
The relationship between NFL football and Thanksgiving Day is long and storied, a relationship that began in 1920 and only was interrupted by World War II from 1941-44. From 1951-1965, the Detroit Lions were the only hosts on Thanksgiving Day, and then Dallas joined that party in 1966 when the slate was expanded to two games. And that’s the way it was through the 2005 season. That’s when the decision was made to have a third game, with the home team for this one to be selected on a rotating basis.
There have been many classic confrontations staged on Thanksgiving Day, but since 2006 when the league added that third game to the holiday’s festivities, the finale has been, well, to use a term suited to the occasion, a turkey. There have been seven games played on Thanksgiving night so far, and never has the final margin been fewer than nine points. Steelers-Ravens has been staged 14 times since Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007, and only three of those 14 games have been decided by more than a touchdown.
If the league was going to come up with a matchup to keep its fans awake after a long holiday that’s dedicated to overeating, Steelers-Ravens figured to be its best shot.
The history of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving Day is a rather short one, certainly short for a team that will play its 81st NFL season in 2013.
In 1939-40, a two-year span when President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, the Steelers played back-to-back games on the “new” Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, and lost both of them to the Eagles. Then in 1950, the NFL scheduled two games on Thanksgiving Day, with the Lions beating the New York Yanks, and the Steelers defeating the Chicago Cardinals. The Steelers’ only other appearances on Thanksgiving Day came in Detroit in 1983, in Dallas in 1991, and in Detroit in 1998 for the infamous Phil Luckett coin toss game. In total, the Steelers are 1-5 on Thanksgiving Day, with all of those games having been played on the road. The looming matchup against the Ravens will be No. 7.
“The game that jumps out at you is the Thursday night in Baltimore,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “That certainly should be an interesting time. The game in Baltimore always is a big game and there’s a lot of attention on it, and the fact this one is on Thanksgiving night makes it an even bigger game.”
Thanksgiving night will be one of the Steelers’ four appearances on primetime this season, with the others being a Monday night date with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 16, and then Sunday night games at Heinz Field against Chicago on Sept. 22 and vs. Cincinnati on Dec. 15.
“I like the way the schedule plays out,” said Rooney. “I’m happy we have a couple of the Sunday night games at home. Those games – against the Bears early in the season and then against the Bengals later on in mid-December – will be two important games for us.”
The annual announcement of the upcoming schedule is highly-anticipated throughout Steelers Nation, with every fan having particular things to check first. Maybe it’s the number of primetime games, or the number of home games before the weather turns colder, or where the team is to play over the Christmas-New Year holidays.
“For me, No. 1, I always look at where we open the season,” said Rooney. “I’m happy that we’re opening the season at home. I always prefer to do that. Then, I always look at the division games and when they fall. The Baltimore game is one that certainly jumps out on this schedule. Then obviously this year we have the game in London, which will be a special occasion, and it will be interesting to see how Steelers fans in Europe travel.”
The opener, at home for the first time since 2010, will be against the Tennessee Titans. Factoring in the trip to London for the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 29 and the bye that always follows for teams playing an international game, the Steelers could have faced a situation where they played only once at home through the first six weeks of the schedule. But the NFL squeezed in that Sunday night game against the Bears at Heinz Field, and so the Steelers have a more balanced home-and-away mixture in the early portion of the season.
“It’s not the ideal situation,” said Rooney, “but it’s certainly preferable to being on the road for that many weeks in a row.”
Another point of interest is the spacing for the games within the home-and-home series vs. division opponents. Last year the Steelers played the Ravens twice within three weeks starting in late November. This time there are five weeks between the Ravens’ games.
“I do like that. I prefer that,” said Rooney. “Last year was not an ideal situation, having to play the Ravens twice inside of three weeks. The league doesn’t like to do that, and I believe it’s better to have the ends of the home-and-home series spaced out a little bit. From that standpoint, it’s a good schedule.
For teams that play outside in the elements, and for teams that have to travel to opposing venues that are outside, the weather can be of interest, and in that respect the Steelers seem to have come out relatively even. The Steelers will have no games on the road in oppressive heat, and they get the warm-weather Miami Dolphins in Pittsburgh on Dec. 8 but then travel to the frozen tundra to face the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 22.
“Particularly with kickoff in Green Bay at 4:30 in the afternoon, it’ll be a little bit chilly for sure,” said Rooney. “Everybody should expect to wear their long underwear for that one.”