It was Oct. 1, a Thursday night in the middle of autumn, and the world that is an NFL regular season was a much different place. To be specific, in Pittsburgh the quarterback for the 2-1 Steelers wasn't Ben Roethlisberger but the placekicker was Josh Scobee. In Baltimore, the quarterback for the Ravens was Joe Flacco, and because he still was able to hand it to Justin Forsett and throw it to Steve Smith there remained some sliver of hope that an 0-3 record could be turned around quickly enough to fulfill the fans' expectations of making the playoffs.
Twelve weeks later, Roethlisberger is quarterbacking an offense that's averaging 32.2 points in the seven games he has started since Oct. 1, and the 9-5 Steelers are a win coupled with a Jets loss to New England away from clinching a playoff spot. Like all teams with almost five times as many players on their injured reserve list as victories, 19-4, the Ravens will have no playoffs at the end of this regular season, and the only cause they would have to do any scoreboard watching would be to see how it might affect their positioning for the 2016 NFL Draft.
These two rivals are not both playing for the same stakes at this point of this NFL season, but there are two truths to keep in mind nevertheless: These two teams will be playing inside M&T Bank Stadium in five days, and they remain rivals.
"The last time we played them, they were without Terrell Suggs," said Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "They are still without him. But when you watch the tape, they are still largely the same body or group of guys we played the last time. From that standpoint, it will be traditional Steelers-Ravens from a familiarity standpoint, not only schematically, but also the physical matchups associated with the men who play."
On offense, the Ravens are very different, but then again so are the Steelers. Le'Veon Bell is on injured reserve this time and Maurkice Pouncey still is, but Martavis Bryant has made 48 catches and scored six touchdowns since coming off suspension the day after that Oct. 1 game vs. the Ravens, Alejandro Villanueva will start at left tackle, and Roethlisberger will be the starting quarterback.
"Let me count the ways," said Tomlin when asked to detail the differences in the Steelers since they last faced the Ravens. "It's just the natural maturation process of a group, individually and collectively over the course of the season. That was Week 4, we're now in the thick of this thing. So, just the natural evolution of teams."
The Steelers' evolution has them considered among the top offensive teams in football right now, and the Ravens were left to start Jimmy Clausen at quarterback last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs because Flacco is one of the 19 on injured reserve and backup Matt Schaub couldn't play because of a chest injury.
"On offense, there have been some changes (for the Ravens)," said Tomlin. "There are some guys we need to get familiar with, but at the same time, not a lot has changed in terms of the schematics. They have some grizzly, battle-tested coaches on the offensive side … I don't imagine that they will blink in the face of adversity that they have faced to this point."
Regardless, the game must be played and the Steelers need to win, and so the business of the week will proceed as if both were still on the "two trains, one track" collision course that has characterized so many games in the recent history of this rivalry.
"We just look at the state we're in right now and how we're playing and what our strengths and weaknesses are right now, try to play to our strengths and work to minimize our weaknesses with an understanding of who and what they are," said Tomlin about the process of preparing for this rematch. "We're not going through this process of game prep any differently than we did the last time. Who is playing quarterback is an element of the equation. Obviously, we weighed Mike Vick's presence into the equation, in terms of the building of the plan, last time. This time, we'll weigh Ben's presence in the equation of the plan. It's just normal processes for us, in terms of game prep."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"From an injury standpoint, it appears we are in pretty good shape. The only in-game injury to speak of was Mike Mitchell. He sustained a shoulder injury. He was able to go back in and finish. We will probably manage him during the course of the week to make sure he is at his very best as we go into the stadium. The rest of the guys, the veteran maintenance guys, that will be normal procedural things in terms of their practice participation in terms of game readiness. It will give an opportunity for the young guys to get extended work, and will get guys to rest and recuperation when required. There were a number of illnesses last week, particularly at the latter part of last week. DeAngelo Williams was sick Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Landry Jones was sick on game day. So it's that time of year. Maybe we will have a few of those types of things to deal with. But we won't let that stop the train."