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Posted: 21 hours 55 minutes ago

Top defenses square off for AFC North supremacy

Associated Press

Legendary defenses have carried the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl titles in the past, fitting for two franchises known for their physical styles of football.

Thursday, Dec. 11
» Chicago 27, New Orleans 24 (OT)
» San Francisco at Miami, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» Tampa Bay at Atlanta, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» Washington at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» San Diego at Kansas City, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
» Green Bay at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» Tennessee at Houston, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
» Seattle at St. Louis, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» Detroit at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
» Buffalo at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
» Minnesota at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
» New England at Oakland, 4:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
» Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 4:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
» Denver at Carolina, 4:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
» N.Y. Giants at Dallas, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Monday, Dec. 15
» Cleveland at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

They may have outdone themselves this season.

The NFL's top two defenses will be on the field Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Steelers will try to lock up back-to-back AFC North titles and a first-round bye in the playoffs while snapping a five-game skid in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh used its famed Steel Curtain defense -- led by four Hall of Famers -- to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, while the Ravens held their four playoff opponents to 23 total points on their way to winning Super Bowl XXXV in 2001.

This season, the Steelers (10-3) are tops in the league in total defense (241.9 yards per game), while the Ravens (9-4) are second (253.4). Both units rank among the NFL's top 10 since 1987.

"We have a great team defense," Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "There's not one person on this defense that will say they'll take all the credit. ... In order for us to stop the run, the secondary has to be a part, and in order to stop the pass the D-line and linebackers have to be a part. And that's one thing that makes us a close group."

The Steelers have yet to give up 300 yards in a game this season, and though they came close last Sunday, they more than made up for those 289 yards allowed at the end.

Dallas held a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead at Heinz Field, but after Pittsburgh's offense rallied to tie the score with two minutes left, the defense did the rest. Townsend picked off an errant Tony Romo pass and took it into the end zone, giving the No. 1 defense in the league its second touchdown of the season and the Steelers a 20-13 victory.

"We're going to win by any means necessary," said linebacker James Harrison, who leads the league with seven forced fumbles and is third with 15 sacks. "If the defense has to score, if the special teams have to kick in a score, or if the offense has to score 50 points -- whatever it takes to win."

2009 Pro Bowl Find out who made the Pro Bowl when voting results are announced live on NFL Network on Tue., Dec. 16 on the 2009 NFL Pro Bowl Selection Show presented by State Farm.

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The Ravens have scored six times on defense this season, most recently last Sunday against Washington. Ed Reed had two interceptions for the second time in three weeks and returned a fumble for a touchdown, paving the way for a 24-10 Baltimore victory.

It was the seventh time in Reed's career that he's taken an interception or fumble in for a score.

"Ed is going to always be Ed," linebacker Ray Lewis said, "but the way our defense came out and set down (Redskins running back) Clinton Portis, the guys up front did an extremely incredible freaking job."

That win helped keep the Ravens just a game back of the Steelers in the AFC North, though Baltimore is currently in position to earn one of the conference's two wild-card spots. If Pittsburgh can beat the Ravens on the road for the first time since 2002, it would not only lock up the division by virtue of a head-to-head sweep, but it would also guarantee the Steelers a first-round bye.

The aftermath of the teams' first meeting of the season added another brutally physical chapter to a rivalry that's had no shortage of colorful language on and off the field. After Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime win on Sept. 29, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs bragged that the Ravens put a bounty on running back Rashard Mendenhall before Lewis' hard hit ended the rookie's season.

Suggs also said there was a bounty on Steelers receiver Hines Ward, though he later retracted both statements, which prompted an NFL investigation.

Suggs refused to let the war of words escalate this week -- sort of.

"I can't say anything about (Ward) this week because of the stuff that happened and because we're playing them," he said. "I'm being totally honest, I can't give you what you deserve (to hear)."

Ward, known for his punishing downfield blocks, knows there's no love lost between two teams that by season's end will have combined to win six of the seven AFC North titles since 2002.

"They're all hated," Ward said. "Anybody in purple, they're hated. It's a respect, but there's no love for them. They're not inviting me to come out and eat crab cakes with them."

Ward has scored six touchdowns in 20 games against the Ravens, but none in his last seven. He's also coming off one of the quietest games of his career, when he caught one pass for two yards in the win over Dallas.

Pittsburgh's offense hasn't been very good all season, and while a lot of that falls on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- the league's 23rd-rated passer (80.1) -- much of the blame goes to a running game that can't seem to get going.

With Willie Parker nursing a knee injury and third-down back Mewelde Moore getting more carries than he's used to, the Steelers have run for 70 yards or fewer five times. Coming into 2008, they'd failed to run for 70 yards seven times in the past four seasons.

Sterling Sharpe chat
On how the Steelers defense compares to the 2000 Ravens defense: "It's not as dominant. I'm saying in all phases -- turnovers, stopping the run, against the pass. That football team was known for defense. They made two plays on offense in the playoffs and got there. When you score seven points and the game is over, that's pretty good defense." Sharpe's chat transcript...

"Down the stretch, you've got to be able to run the football and control the football against good people, close out football games, so we've got to continue to work at it," coach Mike Tomlin said.

Baltimore isn't running up and down the field, either, but it may have its most versatile offense in franchise history. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has a 95.6 passer rating since Oct. 19, leading the Ravens to a 7-1 record while throwing 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

Flacco didn't throw an interception in the Steelers' overtime win over Baltimore in October, but he was stripped on a sack by Harrison that keyed Pittsburgh's 10-point comeback.

While the Steelers have struggled to run the ball, Baltimore hasn't. Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain have combined to give the Ravens the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack (144.0), though they'll be running into a defense that allows a league-low 73.0 yards on the ground.

Pittsburgh has won four in a row on the road, its last three by an average of 22.7 points.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3-0)
Injuries more
Player Injury
C. Davis/ RB Did Not Pract - Calf
J. Harrison/ LB Did Not Pract - Knee
B. Keisel/ DE Did Not Pract - Knee
M. Smith/ T Did Not Pract - Back
Team Leaders Complete Player Stats
B. Roethlisberger 225 376 2616 14
W. Parker 154 597 3.9 4
M. Moore 126 521 4.1 5
Receiving REC YDS AVG TD
H. Ward 60 757 12.6 6
S. Holmes 44 676 15.4 3
Baltimore Ravens (9-4-0)
Injuries more
Player Injury
J. Gaither/ T Did Not Pract - Shoulder
D. Mason/ WR Did Not Pract - Shoulder
R. Rice/ RB Did Not Pract - Calf
M. Stover/ K Did Not Pract - Ankle
Team Leaders Complete Player Stats
J. Flacco 212 352 2410 13
L. McClain 162 606 3.7 7
W. McGahee 152 521 3.4 5
Receiving REC YDS AVG TD
D. Mason 65 871 13.4 4
M. Clayton 30 494 16.5 3