By BOB LABRIOLA
Trap games. Letdowns. Sandwich games. Goalpost games. All are interesting concepts, but none of them apply here.
There's really no danger of any of that when a team goes from playing in New England to hosting Dallas to playing in Baltimore to playing in Tennessee. The Steelers' 2008 schedule is the toughest in football, and their December might be the most physically demanding in league history.
The Steelers have won four in a row to raise their record to 10-3, but the state of the league is such that even though a victory over the Ravens would clinch the AFC North Division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, it's also possible the Steelers could be shut out of one of the conference's six playoff spots when the regular season concludes on Dec. 28.
It's still that wide open, and so Coach Mike Tomlin doesn't anticipate any difficulty when it comes to holding his team's attention through the rest of this month.
"The quality opponents that we have had to face week in and week out has helped our team more than anything," said Tomlin. "When you are in the five-star matchup of the week just about every week, that gets your attention, keeps you on edge. Thankfully, through it all, we have had an opportunity to be successful for the most part.
"What the Ravens 9-4 record does for us this week is that it helps us from that standpoint again. I don't anticipate having any trouble getting the players' attention (Wednesday) morning at 9 a.m. when we start introducing the Baltimore Ravens."
There is a familiarity based on the home-and-home annual series that's a part of sharing the same division, but the Steelers can expect a different Ravens team from the one they edged in overtime back on Sept. 29. And if part of that difference comes from Baltimore's quarterback having an additional 10 games of professional experience, another part comes from the home-and-home annual series that's a part of sharing the same division. In games against quality opposition, it's adjust, or suffer the consequences.
"We have a veteran football team that's humble and grounded through all of this. I think that's a key component," said Tomlin. "That's one of the things that I am excited about. Again, the fact that we have to play quality people week in and week out helps big-time in that regard.
"You don't have time to pat yourself on the back over big victories. The next challenge is waiting for you. The same can be said with the victory that we had last Sunday. About 10 minutes after we got into that locker room (after beating the Cowboys), everybody was aware of who we play this week."
Certainly, the "who" is always important when going against the Ravens, but this season the "where" is also important. The only team to go to M&T Bank Stadium in 2008 and defeat the Ravens is Tennessee, and the Titans are 11-1.
But the road has been a friendly place for many of the core players still on this Steelers team. In 2005, they won three AFC playoff games on the road before taking out the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, and so far this season they are 5-1 away from Heinz Field, with the only loss coming to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 21.
"(Winning on the road) was really one of the things that we spent some time talking about in the offseason," said Tomlin. "If we wanted to be one of those teams that are vying for the Lombardi (Trophy), we have to be capable of winning in all environments in different circumstances under game locations, and game times.
"I did point out (to the team) that last year's champions, the New York Giants, were 7-1 in 2007 on the road. I just think that's a sign of great teams. Great teams are capable of winning in hostile environments. But in terms of how we are preparing, nothing has changed."