BALTIMORE (AP) — The last time the Baltimore Ravens played on Thanksgiving, coach John Harbaugh gathered the family together for a game against brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers.
Two years later, Harbaugh and the Ravens will spend the holiday with their most bitter rival.
It doesn’t matter that Baltimore (5-6) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-6) both have losing records. Both teams have plenty of motivation, because Thursday night’s game has playoff ramifications. Plus, these AFC North foes almost always engage in a hard-hitting, trash-talking, closely played affair.
“It’s always a cool week when you go against these guys,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “It’s been a good game for the last handful of years, and it’s always a challenge getting ready on a short week. But they have the same issues. It should be a lot of fun.”
Since Harbaugh took over the Ravens in 2008, Baltimore has faced Pittsburgh 13 times, including twice in the playoffs. Nine of those games were decided by three points, including the Steelers’ 19-16 win last month.
“It’s just an intense rivalry,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “Great defense is played. I think everyone understands the urgency of the game. It’s just iron on iron. It’s always a tough battle, and it always comes to the fourth quarter and to the end of the game.”
Few NFL coaches prefer a short week leading up to an important game, but Harbaugh loves the idea of pacing the sideline at a time when most of America is digesting a big holiday meal.
“To get a chance to play on Thanksgiving night in front of the whole country in a rivalry such as this in Baltimore is something that you work hard for,” Harbaugh said. “We’re looking forward to it. We can’t wait to play.”
Five things to know about the Ravens-Steelers matchup:
SURGING STEELERS: After opening the season with four straight defeats, the Steelers have bounced back with a 5-2 run that includes three consecutive wins.
“I just think we’re all continually evolving, and thankfully we’re evolving in the right direction,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Since that horrid start, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 14 touchdown passes compared to only five interceptions. Brown has 80 catches for 1,044 yards and six touchdowns.
Asked to explain the Steelers’ resurgence, Brown said, “The adversity we’ve been through has made us even tougher as a band of brothers. We appreciate winning.”
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAY: The Ravens are 4-1 at home this season compared to 1-5 on the road. It’s the continuation of a trend: Baltimore is 37-8 under Harbaugh at home and has won 18 of the last 21 at M&T Bank Stadium.
“We’re going into the lion’s den,” Tomlin said. “I think anybody that is a competitor embraces that. We’ve got a great deal of respect for those guys and their fans and the atmosphere that they create, and (we’re) really looking forward to pitting our skills versus theirs within it.”
SACK HAPPY: The Ravens have a sack in 22 straight games, tying a franchise record, and linebacker Terrell Suggs has more sacks (16 1/2) against Roethlisberger than any other quarterback.
“Being that he is the hardest guy to tackle, it’s something I really take pride in,” said Suggs, who has nine sacks for the season but none in the last three games.
“I was thinking about that, too,” Suggs said of the drought. “I can’t get down on myself. I’ve still got games left.”
FAMILIAR FOE: It’s tough to get an NFL team ready in just three days, but at the least Tomlin and Harbaugh have the advantage of knowing their opponent.
“Both teams have a pretty good idea, I’m sure, of how the other is organized,” Harbaugh said. “So, we’re pretty far down the road with each other at this point.”
Said Tomlin: “I think every short week I’ve had, really since they’ve been doing these Thursday night games in ’08, has been with a familiar opponent. I think that’s something that the league makes a conscious effort to do.”
RUNNING MAN: Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell is coming off an 80-yard performance in Cleveland and burned the Ravens for a career-high 93 yards the last time the teams played.
“The best thing about him is he doesn’t pretend to know everything,” Tomlin said. “He comes in the building every day ready and willing to learn. He listens well, and I think those are great skills and perspective to have to go along with his obvious physical talents.”
Bell has 455 yards rushing, five more than Baltimore’s Ray Rice, a three-time Pro Bowler.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)